Ryan Stelzer on the role of the Chief Philosophy Officer – an extract from the conversation
Sören E. Schuster: Philosophers do not generally have the reputation of being very approachable or sociable. Wouldn’t that be a problem, especially for the inhouse role of the CPO?
Ryan Stelzer: Yes, Socrates would not be a very good employee. I would rather use the phrase “disruptive talent.” If you can harness somebody who has philosophical leanings and is a bit Socratic in their approach – and maybe even is somewhat of a troublemaker, someone who challenges the status quo – then that is talent that you can apply. If you can reorient or capture that lightning in a bottle and use it to your advantage, it’s great. If not, then they can be very disruptive, and might convince everyone to quit. Everyone would start asking what the purpose of the job is. We don’t want to go as far as Socrates did, corrupt the youth and drink hemlock. We want to ask questions like: “What are we doing here? What is our mission at this organization? What’s our purpose here? What’s the product that we’re developing? Why is it that people are coming to us, who’s paying us money?” Those initial questions are incredibly valuable, and companies don’t ask those enough. So if the philosophical consultant or the Chief Philosophy Officer can just get to that initial stage, that’s incredibly valuable for organizations. We should not take it beyond that, to the point where people are uncomfortable, like Socrates did. So that’s why I think philosophers can be “disruptive talents,” they actually have a skill that they can bring to a company. It’s just a matter of putting them to work and making sure that their skill is harnessed.
From the perspective of the company, it sure seems reasonable not to let the philosopher question anything that comes into his or her way. But what if we turn the question around and ask: “Why would someone, as a philosopher, even go into a company?” Philosophers are primarily interested in truth, and therefore that background bears a special integrity. Some people might see a potential conflict when philosophers start to go into business. Is it possible to align profit orientation with the philosophical seeking for truth?
I have no issue with it personally, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else, especially when it’s matters of ethics. It’s so subjective and personal that I don’t want to tell philosophers what to do. But the way that I reconciled that was impact. I knew that if I stayed in academia to work in small circles of philosophers and write papers, they would probably be read by three people. And conversely, if I wanted to sort of broaden the positive impact of my work, and I wanted to make a difference, create change, and actually see actionable items from my ideas, then a good way to do that is to put them to work through an organization that has a lot more resources than I do. If I can go work for a major bank, and I can use the resources of that bank and try to redirect that bank to engage in ethical behavior from the inside, then that’s to me far more valuable than sitting outside and criticizing it with three people listening. I would rather be inside creating change than outside complaining about that nothing is being changed. My reconciliation was: I’m just going to go and it’s not even a Trojan horse. I’m going to be a part of it and try to change the workings and the mechanisms of the company.
That is one reason, me and David wrote our book Think Talk Create. Hopefully, it is going to be read by more people than those who would have read my dissertation had I remained in academia. So to me, it’s a question of impact. And there’s nothing wrong if you want to stay in academia and work within those circles and study and really engage in theory, that’s terrific! But personally, for me, I did not find value in that, I wasn’t going to be happy doing that.
If I remember it right from Think Talk Create, you introduce “psychological safety” as something that is to be generated in a company. If you have making profit as one drive of business, this dimension of ethical impact would also be there.
Yes, it’s humane capitalism in the sense that you can build a capitalist organization that’s high-performing by humanizing it. And the quick story on psychological safety is: Google wanted to study what made their teams perform really well. And so they created a project, funnily enough called Project Aristotle. They all set out to study which teams perform well, and why they did so. And the hypothesis, when they started the project, was that performance was a matter of casting. Casting means that if I have a new employee, I’m going to pair you with an old employee. If you are an introvert, I’m going to pair you with an extrovert and so it’s piecing together the right teams. If you build the right teams that way, well, then you’re going to have a high-performing team. In their own words, what they found was that they were “dead wrong.” The only indicator of high performance amongst teams was this idea of psychological safety.
Psychological safety, roughly defined, is achieved when you can share ideas freely with no judgment or reprisal or mockery or any sort of negative retribution. It’s a space or an environment where you can raise your hand if you’re in a meeting and you have an idea. You have no reservations about sharing your ideas. And it makes sense that those teams are the highest performing, because all of these heads are working together. Two heads are better than one. And they’re all collaborating, and they’re all sharing ideas freely. Whereas if you work in a more toxic environment, you’re probably less likely to raise your hand and share your idea, because you might get yelled at, you might be reprimanded, made fun of or mocked. Psychological safety is this idea where you can share your ideas freely without being judged. And that is the only indicator of high performance amongst teams. If you’re a capitalist organization, and you build psychological safety, well, then you’re going to be better off and your bottom line is going to be better off. The way in which you build psychological safety is by using the tools of philosophy. If you engage in dialogue, and you learn how to have conversations with your peers, this is what actually drives business success. In a weird way, philosophy is sort of the unknown tool that businesses are not using that can help them be more successful. And that’s how you get there. We want to be high-performing. How do we become high-performing? We have to build psychologically safe environments. Okay. How do we build psychologically safe environments? Well, by engaging in dialogue. How do we learn how to engage in dialogue? Well, you should talk to a philosopher!