Is a business an inanimate object or is it a social being?
On its face, that sounds like a ridiculous question. Isn’t a corporation simply a piece of paper filed in Delaware? Just a physical entity or the sum of all the 10-Ks and 10-Qs filed on its behalf? In what ways could a corporation possibly be considered a social being?
Last year a group of cognitive scientists researched whether there were any differences or similarities between the human brain’s perception of corporations vs. people. Regardless of your feelings about corporate “personhood,” the study’s results (published in the Journal of Social Neuroscience and profiled in today’s Wall Street Journal) make interesting reading for anyone doing brand and business strategy work.
The study found that how we react to the behaviors and actions of people and to those of corporations are strikingly similar. We process these reactions emotionally using the social reasoning part of the brain, the same part that decreases in activity if an entity is objectified. But the study shows that corporations are not being objectified.
“People apply similar mechanisms of moral reasoning and perspective-taking when evaluating the actions of corporations and people alike,” the study’s authors concluded. “In other words, people do not treat corporations as physical entities but rather as social beings. Further, this social reasoning network allows people to form representations of the others, giving rise to decisions about morality and justice.”
Corporations – as far as our brains are concerned – are not inanimate things, they are beings … they are WHOs.
Our expectations of an entity (a thing) are very different from our expectations of a being (a who): Morality. Justice. Fairness. Purpose. Customers today expect more from corporations than mere blind adherence to Milton Friedman’s belief that the purpose of business is to make money. Profit is important, but blindly following profit – at the expense of shareholders, stakeholders, and integrity – is a mistake.
Businesses however that focus on more than profit (by articulating their purpose and finding shared value) have the ability to access the social reasoning part of our brains to build emotional connections with their stakeholders and create Heartspace. As Barry writes in “Why Heartspace is a Brand’s Ultimate Goal,” Heartspace allows for forgiveness when a business makes mistakes, which means one business’s products can often be preferred over cheaper or even more convenient options.
Thinking of your business as a social being rather than as a thing does bring greater responsibility, but it also brings the potential for greater reward.
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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits, and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.