The Only Two Schools of Business that Matter

There are two schools of philosophy we use to debate issues of fairness and equity in our country, our workplaces, and communities. But these debates are not actually about fairness. They are debates about the sustainability of social systems — companies included.

The first philosophy ascribes to the principle, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Practitioners of this philosophy believe it is their responsibility to respond when they become aware of people who are suffering needlessly and disproportionately.

Such Justice Practitioners believe that, at the very least, they can use their voice and actions to raise awareness of these inequities and injustices with other people so that they can collectively come up with solutions to change social problems that affect a large number of people. They believe it is a responsibility and sacred duty to use any position privilege they may have to speak up and take action on behalf of others who are facing these injustices.

This awareness of the collective is the same principle by which we honor a country, a soldier, or a symbol of a particular way of life. Justice Practitioners say, “We are a community and we must support one another by doing everything we can to prevent each other’s suffering from going unchecked and preventing bad things from happening to one another. The most important thing is to take care of one another.”

The competing philosophy here is owned by Self-Reliance Practitioners who say, “For a society to function, every person must stand for themselves, must make their own way in life, must not burden others. Too much reliance on others enables a society of freeloaders, dependent victims, and hamstrung winners. The most important thing is to reward self-reliant people for achievements they earn through intense effort so that all can be encouraged to independently reach their greatest potential.”

In the face of injustice, a Self-Reliance Practitioner would say, “You are responsible for your responding to your circumstances with choices. Stand up for yourself. You and you alone have the power to change your circumstances. Don’t burden others with your problems. You should be grateful for any opportunity you have to choose your actions.”

These philosophies, under certain conditions, are useful for building a complex society composed of strangers. But, in their most fundamental versions, only one philosophy can ensure the richness of the human condition is respected and a society can still function sustainably. All things being equal, people live worse lives in prolonged solitude rather than in concert with one another. And our workplaces and society are getting lonelier.

In a society where inequities are designed and inevitably flow from the application of human diversity, such as ours, an over-reliance on the Self-Reliance philosophy merely reinforces a stacked deck and minimizes the advantages they have been afforded or afforded others, particularly those advantages that have come at the expense of others. But all that stacking creates a top-heavy society and economy where the advantages of a few are rarely exchanged with the rest. Consequently, an over-reliance on self-reliance stifles the ability of many to rise and the whole to thrive.

If we aspire to live in truly thriving societies and companies, such aspirations demand our awareness of inequity and injustice and that we share this awareness and take actions to correct those injustices with like-minded citizens and colleagues. Most importantly, aspirations of freedom counterintuitively require our willingness give without the expectation of return, our willingness to redistribute opportunity to others who may have been complete strangers to us just moments before but for whom the opportunity would yield a much greater positive impact.

Leaders will tell you they believe in the value of diversity. They will tell you they want to be inclusive.

But equity? At what cost? How is this supposed to help the bottom-line?

Workplaces are an experimental microcosm in which the merits of two branches of personal philosophy — Justice & Self-Reliance — play out in black and white (in the or red). Commerce puts the value of organizational philosophies that prioritize justice and equity to the test.

We already know that self-reliance is an absolute necessity for the successful completion of any major goal.

But can a sense of justice help build a growing company faster, for longer? The short answer is absolutely — and to a greater extent than most would imagine.

Corporate responsibility has been shown to be correlated with an increase in company profits. Companies that have committed to inclusion and are in the Top 25% of racial and ethnic diversity have a 35% greater likelihood of beating the market on an annual basis. Companies that practice self-management, distributed leadership, and create more autonomous working conditions for their employees are dominating in markets as vital and diverse as energy and home care nursing.

All of these innovations became realities because someone spoke up when the motto of self-reliance was no longer effective, or when it benefited only a few at the expense of the mission, of the community making the product or delivering the services. Company leaders would be surprised at how fast their colleagues can rise to the occasion, when they take are willing to speak up (or join others in taking a knee) for justice. They would be shocked at how fast they can fall if they ignore voices on the frontlines of humanity’s most significant struggles for equity and inclusion.

In truth, depending on the circumstances, we are all practitioners of both the Justice and Self-Reliance philosophies on a daily basis. But, now more than ever, we must take an honest assessment of whom the privileges of opportunity and equity are afforded to first in our country and through our organizations, and respond accordingly to sustain our future.

So, what school will you stand with when you return to work tomorrow? Only one will leave us standing alone.

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Chris Conroy is the founder and principal officer of Conroy Talent & Associates, LLC, a workplace design firm dedicated to leveraging the natural human strengths of autonomy, integrity, diversity, inclusion, and equity to build workplaces people love. CTA is focused on delivering phenomenal diversity talent recruitment as well as organizational management consulting to organizations of all kinds.

You can reach him on LinkedIn, via email at and on Twitter.