Re-framing the Definition of Business

March 9, 2017

Ask any person what you want most in your life and you will hear a common answer “, I want to feel happy.” Happiness is the driving force that propels us to pursue our goals. It is the reason why we do everything, like buying things, traveling to places, engaging in a hobby, pursuing a career, leaving a job, entering or leaving a relationship, and the list goes on.  Every one of us, from the moment we wake up until we go to bed, spends his or her time pursuing this goal, and since the bulk of this time is spent at the workplace, then the definition of the business must be adjusted so that it can also support the pursuit of this goal. Unfortunately this is not the case. This is why people, who are unhappy in their jobs, leave their company in search of another. 


Currently, the primary definition of business is formed solely from an economic perspective. And although every literature on leadership states that the most important element in every business is the employees who serve them, we find that the definition of business continues to neglect to include the employees’ perspective. The business dictionary defines business as “an economic system in which goods and services are exchanged for one another or money, on the basis of their perceived worth.” This is a typical definition you will find in every piece of business literature; little wonder, every business categorizes employees as an expense they need to reduce rather than an asset they need to develop. Of course, business must make money in order to sustain its existence. But wording the definition to serve just the economic perspective is very limiting, and, on the long run, will undermine the very fulfillment of this perspective.


The people perspective is “the pursuit of happiness.”  If you ask different people what specific goals they are pursuing, you will undoubtedly hear different answers. Some people might state that their primary goal is to boost their income. But If you dialogue with them as to what would that give them, you will eventually hear them say “, a sense of fulfillment.” Here is an example of what the dialogue with that person might be like. This example is reproduced from “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook”, by Dr. Peter Senge. Let’s say that you asked a person what is their primary goal.


“My goal right now is to boost my income.”


“What would that bring you?”


“I could buy a house in North Carolina.”


“And what would that bring you?”


“For one thing, it would bring me closer to my sister. She lives near Charlotte.”


“And what would that bring you?”


“A sense of home and connection.”


“And what would a sense of home and connection bring you?”


“A sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.”


“And what would that bring you?”


“I guess there is nothing else—I just want that. I still do want a closer relationship with my sister. And the house. And, for that matter, the income. But the sense of fulfillment seems to be the source of what I’m striving for.”


Can the definition of business be widened to allow for the two perspectives to coexist? I argue that it can. In fact, I believe they’re codependent, for one perspective can’t be fulfilled without the fulfillment of the other.  To illustrate this point, let us examine the needs of the various players in any business. 


I see business as a relationship among four primary groups of people, each of whom depends on the other to achieve their need of attaining fulfillment. First, there are the shareholders, who want the business to be profitable. To the shareholders, a profitable business is a means to boosting income, which as we discovered in the earlier example, would bring them a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. Then there are the customers, who seek to receive a specific service. And if we probe the customers as to what the service would bring them, we will again discover that somehow the service they are seeking is also a means to attaining some level of fulfillment. There are also the suppliers who seek to gain compensation in exchange for the goods or services they supply. And if you take them through “what would that bring you” exercise, you will, again, find that the compensation is their means to attaining fulfillment.  The same goes for the fourth group—the employees—who aspire to have their workplace be a second home. After all, they spend the bulk of their time at the workplace—how could it be anything but a second home? To the employees, the workplace is a structure that provides stability, an investment that generates income, a venue to develop and grow, a community that offers satisfying social interaction, an opportunity to contribute beyond oneself, all of which are sources of happiness and fulfillment.


There is a huge gap between the research work that is being done on leadership development and its complementary part that is being done on business development. Researchers in the field of leadership have recognized the “people prospective”, and have responded by expanding their research work to encompass the developments in other fields such as human psychology. Yet, we find that business researchers are contrarily holding on to the archaic economic perspective that views business as no more than the goose that lays the golden eggs. Unfortunately, this gap will continue to grow wider unless we re-frame the definition of business to free it from the chains that were placed on it by the economic perspective. Until such time, we will continue to witness examples similar to the creative accounting of Enron and the destructive investment schemes of Bernard Madoff.

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