Relationships of Value


Human value cannot be subordinated to market value.

When, as citizens, we make far-reaching decisions, it is all too familiar to see the headlines reporting how the markets have reacted. The risk is that we are being drawn to the markets and financial value to define what is good and bad for us as people. In short the benefit to us as people, the “human value”, is in danger of being subordinated to market value. We need to think carefully about the values system we choose to embrace.

This is not simply a topic for momentous events of public democracy. It is lived in the everyday interactions between institutions that shape the market economy and the society that bears the consequences of decisions made by those institutions. This article concentrates on the institution of business, its role in society, and how business can bring human values to the fore.

Let’s start with the good news. Many businesses recognise that their value derives from the value they deliver to society; through the goods and services they bring to market and the responsible way those goods and services are produced and sold. They recognise the mutual benefits of genuine relationships with customers, suppliers, employees, communities, regulators and investors. And there is increasing evidence that these relationships generate the human value that in turn gets translated into superior operational performance and consequent financial value (see a collation of evidence at Blueprint for Better Business).

You could conclude that by showing the links between financial value and human relationships we are proposing exactly what we are seeking to declaim – that financial and market value define what matters most, and that human value is just a means for achieving it.  Such a conclusion misunderstands the relationship between the two; financial value is an outcome of creating human value in a business context, not the measure of it. Human value – understood as the value the business delivers to society –is what matters more.

This hierarchy of relationships and outcomes is not new and neither is it outside the mainstream; see the Johnson & Johnson Credo and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan as past and current examples. Whilst mainstream and growing, it is not as widespread as it could and should be. Part of the reason is that the businesses and people leading the change are challenging an orthodoxy about business, and also about people, which makes it a more risky venture than it should be. If broadly summarised, this orthodoxy maintains the purpose of business is to maximise shareholder value and that it is possible to put people in service of that goal by appealing to and rewarding their self-interest. This credo needs to be challenged if we are to change.

Business is a creation of society and so should be in service of the society that created it and that supports it. The reality of the human person is that we are mired in self-interest when we are in fear or disrespected and/or have no means to express our latent desire to be fulfilled as a whole person. We seek meaning in what we do, seek relationships to give context to that meaning and want to co-create something which has benefits beyond our own self satisfaction.

If a business demonstrates respect for people and enables their latent desires to be expressed, then they can add to human value. The business outcomes are more engaged and innovative employees, customers as loyal advocates, reliable and collaborative suppliers, welcoming communities and thoughtful regulators. The joy of business is to innovate ways to demonstrate that human value is at the heart of the why and how of their existence. There are myriad ways to give people a genuine voice –from employee councils to transparent “ critical friend “ reviews by NGOs with industry, sector or issue experience.  Giving people voice enables co-creation by encouraging customer and employee involvement in areas where the business has set a social goal, either through direct engagement or indirectly through the purchase of goods and services. It also allows people to be in relationships based on transparency and collaboration with suppliers, through a mutual and genuine care for the planet that sustains us all. Additionally, it means involvement with local communities to share knowledge, resources and opportunities.

The opportunity is there to show genuine respect to people by giving them a voice, giving them a chance to use that voice through acts of co-creation, and to show impact using evidence everyone can trust. We can all contribute as citizens, as customers, as academics and as people in business; the first step is to understand and call for the proper relationship between human value and market and shareholder value. The market is at the service of society, not the other way round.

Charles Wookey and Loughlin Hickey are founding members of A Blueprint for Better Business . Charles is CEO and Loughlin is a Trustee and Senior Adviser.

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