Written by Carrie Foster on 1 September 2013 in Features

"Is it time for organisations to adopt a new agenda?" asks Carrie Foster

Despite government austerity measures, job losses and falling pay in real terms, it has been reported that UK business optimism is increasing. However, before we settle back into the rhythms of business as usual, perhaps now is a good time to ask a very important question: what if organisations pursued something other than an economic agenda?

It might seem like an absurd question, but, as any organisational development practitioner will tell you, questions are extremely effective for driving innovation and creativity, causing individuals to pause and look at things from a different angle.

What responsibility should organisations have towards the societies in which they operate? What contribution should they be making to them? What if organisational purpose was not ultimately about delivering shareholder value, but about furthering the health and wellbeing of society? What would it take for organisations to pursue a genuinely ethical and values-driven agenda? What is the alternative to an economic agenda?

Examining these questions led me to invent a new ideology called ‘temperatism’, which I believe spells out what that ‘something other’ might be.

Temperance was an eighteenth century social movement, which sought to address social problems caused by alcoholism. Today we are experiencing social problems, which I believe are driven by the growth of consumerism and self-interest caused by the capitalist pursuit of profit and wealth creation. An economic agenda, which in itself begs the question: profit for what purpose?

In their book How Much is Enough? Skidelsky and Skidelsky write: “Making money cannot be an end in itself… And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity.”1 I wonder if we have really learned the lessons from the credit crunch or if we are destined to repeat the mistake by continuing to build our lives on the pursuit of profit and wealth and the desire to consume based on the capitalist creed of amoral self-interest.

Temperatism goes further than the contrite handwringing of commentators and politicians urging a form of moderation through structural reforms, government regulation or the threat of legal action, such as those suggested for bankers acting with criminal neglect. Instead, it argues that it is the pursuit of an economic agenda that is fundamentally flawed in delivering effectiveness, long-term social value and releasing humanity’s potential.

I share the commitment that many OD practitioners have: every individual has talent potential and, given the right opportunity and environment, that talent can be released to benefit not just the individual but the organisation and wider society too. My experience of developing people and organisations leads me to believe that anything that prevents individuals from being all that they can be is an incalculable loss; a loss that has an impact on society as well as on the individual.

Temperatism developed from the socio-humanistic values of my OD practice and my belief in the universality of human potential. I don’t think that the importance of people-centred thinking for individual, organisational and societal wellbeing is radical or novel to anyone who practices a softer form, or human perspective, of human resource management.

The argument that organisations are successful because of their human factor has been well documented both by academics and by practitioners. Employee engagement relies on individuals being able to align their values and beliefs, their individual purpose with the organisational purpose. Research repeatedly provides evidence that purpose- and people-centred organisations that invest in people-development activities engage employees and deliver greater levels of commitment, high levels of performance and long-term sustainable organisational effectiveness2.

OD itself is a methodology founded in socio-humanistic values, which is supported by behavioural and psychological scientific research. The shift from training, to learning, to OD in the last 20 years is more than a simple relabeling.  It is indicative of a shift towards the acceptance of values-based thinking in organisations.

I define temperatism as a “teetotalism toward a consumption and profit pursuant agenda”3. Alcoholics become teetotal to remove themselves from the injurious nature of their relationship with alcohol. Temperatism promotes a similar remedy to tackling the harm and waste to society caused by the pursuit of an economic agenda.

On an individual level, temperance would be demonstrated through the rejection of consumption for consumption’s sake, switching the focus to what meaningful contribution an individual can make to society. For organisations, it involves adopting an approach that puts people and purpose before profit in achieving organisational effectiveness and performance. For society, it is practising responsibility to the wider global community through our actions.

In short, temperatism proposes that the ‘something other’ to an economic agenda should be ‘doing good’, adopting an ethical and values-based system of economic, social and political participation that puts social needs above self-interest and community above consumerism. This is based on my belief that organisations pursuing a people-centred strategy have a positive impact on the world and deliver long-term sustainable profit, which in turn should be used to benefit society as a whole not simply enrich the wealthy minority.

Some may question the use of such subjective terminology as ‘doing’ and ‘good’, and for that I make no apology. Doing good is defined by the outcome of an action, just as the economic agenda is defined by the outcome of profit and wealth creation. Therefore, doing good is open to debate and you need to consider for yourself what such an agenda might involve for your own organisation and personal life.

This doesn’t mean that temperatism avoids putting a stake in the ground. It proposes an ideological framework, including universal truths called ‘basic goods’:

  • health Our physical and mental wellbeing and those things that relate to sustaining human life
  • security Our expectations regarding our safety and protection
  • respect Individual views and interests being treated as worthy of protection
  • personality Autonomy for individuals to be who they are
  • harmony with nature Reducing the external cost of human activities on the environment
  • friendship Both personal and political union for the common good
  • leisure The opportunity to pursue activities or pursuits that have no other purpose than for our own sake, as well as time off from toil4.

Maybe I have too much faith in the underlying goodness of humanity, but I would like to think that, for many of us, this list of basic goods is self-evidently essential. But read through the list again and really challenge yourself about whether they are fully alive and well in your personal life and your workplace. I’d hope that you expect these things for yourself, but do you and your organisation contribute positively to ensure they are available for everyone?

Would work/life balance be a struggle if leisure were made available to everyone? Would stress and depression be so prevalent if health was ensured? Would employee engagement be an issue if personality were to be applied to work design? The uncomfortable truth is that none of the basic goods currently exist fully in our society.

The temperatist ideology proposes that organisations have a unique role in, and a primary responsibility towards, society because of the significant influence and impact they have on individual lives. It is this societal position that increases the importance of the need for an organisation to pursue a doing good agenda. In essence, temperatism seeks to replace our current market-led ideology with a social-led purpose driven by people-centred ethics and values with societal rather than financial measures of success.

Alternative ways of doing business have been around for as long as there have been organisations, but ethics and values are no longer restricted to a few maverick or hippy entrepreneurs – they are now mainstream. The adoption of ‘something other’ has been making headlines since Marks and Spencer’s launch of its Plan A in 2007 “with the ultimate goal of becoming the world’s most sustainable major retailer”.5

In June 2013, a not-for-profit initiative called Plan B was launched by a group of forward-thinking global business leaders, including Richard Branson, with a vision of “a world in which the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit”.6 Plan B aligns with the temperatist belief regarding the role of organisations in society, the delivery of societal good and the view that organisations being driven by profit motive alone “is no longer acceptable”. However, Plan B still includes the economic agenda alongside social and environmental ones, whereas temperatism advocates replacing the economic agenda with the new agenda of doing good.

However, in my experience, too many organisations continue to count people as a cost that must be efficiently managed rather than focusing on how to create the environment to effectively release the added value that their people can provide.  OD practices are essential for unlocking what I call ‘people potential value’, ie “the ability of organisations to achieve the maximum contribution of individual talent potential in order to contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organisation’s efforts”.7 It is my belief that moving organisations away from an economic agenda to one that is more people-centric is one of the key roles of future OD practice in organisations.

The popularity and adoption of OD as a change management approach provides us with the opportunity to challenge the status quo, by posing innocent, childlike questions regarding what agenda is required to deliver sustainable performance and organisational effectiveness. OD provides the tools and techniques that can help leadership teams challenge their thinking and assumptions, and adopt a new perspective regarding people and purpose. Furthermore, adopting a strong ethical and values approach based on a doing good agenda can release the talent potential, inventiveness and innovation of individuals in a way that can be enjoyed for the good of all within the organisation.

As individuals we can challenge the complicity of our colleagues in accepting attitudes and actions that reduce employees to a resource to be exploited. This would involve creating the opportunity for leaders to examine what the organisation’s purpose is – why it exists in the first place. This means that the focus on an organisation’s outputs must be accompanied by an examination of why it exists, what it does, how it does what it does, when it acts, for whom it acts and where it focuses its efforts.

Introducing a doing good agenda starts with ensuring that the basic goods are available to everyone. We have a unique role to play in helping leaders to develop their thinking in regards to organisational responsibility and sustainability through people. In a world that is constantly changing, and where resources are limited, few organisations will have all of the answers to all of the questions at the precise time that they need them. I have no doubt that OD can provide an innovative response to any of the challenges or opportunities that your organisation is facing. Sustainable performance relies on employees providing greater levels of creativity, innovation, flexibility and adaptability. Creating an environment in which individuals can discover their talent potential and humanising work processes can deliver benefits beyond simply achieving financial targets. OD practitioners are perfectly placed to persuade organisational leaders that there is a business case for a doing good agenda and demonstrate the advantage of restoring the human to human resources.

What is perhaps more challenging about temperatism is the idea that it is not only organisations that need to change, but also our own individual pursuit of the economic agenda. Being preached to isn’t popular but it has been too easy to shift the blame for the credit crunch onto greedy bankers, corrupt politicians and fat cat executives. As individuals, we also need to examine our own behaviour and the contribution we make to the problems in our society.

Climate change, famine, poverty, family breakdown, household debt, addiction, criminality, obesity, lawlessness etc all have their roots in self-interest, rampant consumerism and the drive for instant gratification. The inequality of wealth is greater than at any other time in history8 and this inequality must be addressed. The question that confronts us as individuals is how much wealth is enough? It may be uncomfortable, but temperatism applies the doing good agenda to individual, as well as collective, action.

The doing good agenda makes me question my own choices. I have a collection of around 100 pairs of shoes. They are beautiful, and I get a lot of pleasure from wearing them, but doing good would, I think, mean paying a few pounds extra on fewer things to put an end to child labour in developing countries to which we have outsourced manufacturing and ensuring workers are a paid a living wage. If I, as the consumer, didn’t demand more for less, there would be no competitive advantage in outsourcing to places where workers have no protection from exploitative work practices. We must #bethechange too.

The purpose of my book A Change for Good: Temperatism in Pursuit of a People-Centred Ideology is to question the assumptions we make regarding the way things are and the reasons why we do the things we do. I believe that we are at a unique point in history where a cultural shift and real social change is possible. I hope that temperatism will seed a movement that will challenge the status quo and contribute positively to the ‘something other’ debate.

If we are to make a step change, organisations need leaders who will become the custodians of the doing good agenda personally and professionally. I believe that OD practitioners are best placed to support the process of culture change, leadership development and moral transparency that is required if organisations are to become truly people centred and start doing good.

A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.

About the author

Carrie Foster is director of OD at change management consultancy Fortitude Development. She can be contacted via www.fortitudedevelopment.co.uk

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