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How to balance ethical growth and competitive advantage

Opinions of contributing entrepreneurs are their own.

In sports, games rely on rules — boundaries, penalties, and rule-keepers to enforce them — that circumvent the excitement of the viewer without becoming dangerous or unfair. Everyone agrees to abide by these rules, and despite them, the game can still be very competitive. In hockey, players can throw down their gloves and fight as long as their actions remain within the boundaries of the league. Those who play dirty risk more than exclusion from the game: that reputation can ruin their careers.

In business, we must also follow rules and expectations to support our businesses and prevent our personal and professional brands from being tarnished. The goal of any company is growth, but unless we play within those boundaries, that growth is not sustainable. Stakeholders, such as employees and customers, do higher expectations for business, of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) to environment, society and governance (ESG) standards. The first to come up with new and effective ways to meet more of those demands is the business that will continue to grow.

While ignoring these trends can yield short-term savings, going against customer expectations will not yield sustainable long-term growth. Any company that wants sustainable growth must take into account the growing range of rules and expectations and balance this with their value proposition to keep building.

Related: Business Ethics: Why You Shouldn’t Value Your Integrity

Equal freedom to grow

In life, we all have unlimited freedom to grow – as individuals, partners and leaders, as well as for our businesses. This freedom is not necessarily an innate right, but rather the limitlessness of our potential to learn more and develop our skills to achieve greater achievements. However, to guarantee equal freedom for all, our pursuit of individual freedom must not be at the expense of the freedom of others. These boundaries define the scope of what our freedom can hold – the boundaries within which we can build, manage and support our growth.

Equality in our freedom to grow is not equality, neither in how much we grow nor in the path we take to get there. Giving a group of people all the bananas they want might seem like equality to someone who likes bananas, but those who are allergic to bananas would see the situation differently.

To be equal, everyone should have a fair chance to get as much fruit as they want. Maybe “as much as I want” is less for some. Perhaps the fruit I want is harder to come by, but I’m willing to put in the extra effort to pursue it. Many compromises can still demonstrate equal freedom if everyone accepts the resulting restrictions as equal. Like hockey, you may be a different size and weight, but with the accepted rules you have a fair chance of winning if you fight hard and smart, both on and off the ice.

The limitlessness of possibilities within those limits

People today have higher standards with more access to information about companies and their leaders. Leaders now need to think about DEI and ESG initiatives alongside other business constraints on their freedom to grow – our capabilities and natural laws, as well as these newly developed legal and ethical boundaries to consider. Meeting these limits is now a balance between following the right rules and taking into account the expectations (and additional limits) of these new stakeholders in the game.

If I were to take as many as I wanted of a rare fruit from a largely undeveloped rainforest, today’s consumers would see their well-being compromised because of the impact on the environment and the well-being of society. My fruit harvesting team should be inclusive and diverse to attract top talent and maintain a positive public reputation. In addition, I should consider ways to minimize our interference and impact in the rainforest so that once harvested, the forest has enough time to return to its undeveloped state.

But within all these parameters, we can still find infinite growth opportunities. Despite the rules in hockey, there are still endless ways players can improve: their skating, speed, timing, body strength, game knowledge and the skills of the opposing team, to name a few. Similarly, there are infinite pieces in the puzzle that affect a company’s ability to improve, despite the limits of modern business standards. By studying the map more deeply, we find more ways to improve in more areas and support greater business growth.

Related: 5 pitfalls to avoid when growing (or scaling) a business

Staying within those boundaries makes us competitive

I like to put myself in other people’s shoes to better understand their limits and how I can grow without crossing those limits. Of course, one can choose to ignore the feelings of others for the immediate benefits, but stepping on other people’s toes in the pursuit of growth can be dangerous. It might work the first time, but the second time it happens they tend to fight back. After pursuing short-term benefits at the expense of others a few times, no one may want to work with you anymore.

Meeting every demand from every possible perspective can be an endless investment of time and resources, so the best way to approach these changing expectations is to focus on building our own strength, just like a hockey player does. For businesses, it’s the value proposition: what are we doing right, how do we connect that capability with a solution to bring the benefit to our customers, and how do we solve it in a unique way that no one else can or does. Just as we have the freedom to grow within ourselves and our businesses, we are limitless in developing a better value proposition. By including more of the details we learn about the “floor plan” and its boundaries (rules, norms, expectations), we narrow down our efforts to build more of the boundless performance into it.

We must make efforts to meet these new expectations for sustainable growth today, but those efforts must support, not hinder, our own freedom for growth. This framework is universal and applicable to all businesses of all sizes, from a small fruit cart to a multinational corporation and everything in between.

Related: 5 ways to succeed in a competitive environment


Shreya has been with australiabusinessblog.com for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider australiabusinessblog.com, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

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