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Human Flourishing in the Workplace
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Ethics of Human Flourishing in the Workplace

a chronic business problem

Freedom, meaning and growth are the three essential factors for personal fulfillment, however, the critical narrative and necessary context for human flourishing is ethics. Given that corporations have more resources than individual employees, workplace culture ought to foster greater human flourishing, but this is often not the case.  The false belief, i.e. myth, that business success depends on traditional business skills more than human skills, is the condition that suppresses human flourishing in the workplace.  If a workplace culture does not possess the necessary preconditions on which freedom, meaning, growth depend, employees will not feel fulfilled nor flourish on the job.  What then are these preconditions and why is ethics binding?


By definition, we cannot be ethical or unethical without free choice - without being completely free to choose between right and wrong, regardless of one’s framework of ethics.  If any other agent, internal (false beliefs) or external, determines the choice we make, then we aren't being ethical or unethical - it is the deterministic agent that is ethical or unethical. For this reason alone, human freedom is a precondition for ethics.  And since human flourishing is unimaginable without ethics, human flourishing necessitates true human freedom.

However, most people possess false beliefs about the relationship between human flourishing, freedom, and ethics.  Freedom is commonly conceived to be a condition where someone can do whatever they want, whenever they want, without answering to anyone.  The common path for achieving this kind of freedom is the pursuit of wealth, which enables the wealthy to hire people who must answer to and do what the wealthy don’t want to do.  Even though it is common knowledge that wealth itself does not lead to personal fulfillment nor human flourishing, many people still seek wealth with this expectation in mind.

True human freedom, commonly referred to as ‘free will’, is the ability to make choices and to create new choices without the choice being determined by any agent other than one’s own will. Internal or external agents, which are not in our control, often determine the opportunity set of available choices.  However, the faculty of free will is the power, at the moment of decision-making, to choose from the opportunity set of options, free of the influences of other agents, including one’s own false beliefs.  Otherwise, human beings are nothing more than puppets of other deterministic agents. The opportunity to learn how to exercise the faculty of free will in new ways, is the first necessary precondition for human flourishing in an ethical workplace.

Personal fulfillment and human flourishing also require that life and work be meaningful.  When work is not sufficiently meaningful, we don’t look forward to going to work, and we don’t flourish at work. We falsely believe and thus perceive that it is the work that lacks meaning. We then seek other work, either within the company or by looking for another employer.  This false belief stems from the mistaken idea that a meaningful life or job comes from something outside oneself, when in fact the opposite is true. Meaningfulness is derived not from acquiring something of value, but from giving something of value – that is, being of service. Unless an employer teaches this to their employees, and creates a service-oriented culture where the corporate mindset and practice is to serve everyone who enters the company’s sphere of influence, human flourishing will be very difficult if not impossible to generate in the workplace.  The opportunity to learn the ethics of service is the second precondition for human flourishing in the workplace.

Everything alive must grow.  When growth stops, things wither and eventually die - homo sapiens are no exception.  We already know that growth in wealth, fame or power does not deliver personal fulfillment nor human flourishing.  True human growth is a function of fulfilling one’s unique potential for human greatness, the ethic to become the best version of ourselves based on our unique capabilities. This is the “infinite game” of ethics, a life-long process, which each person must incorporate into their lifestyle and each business must incorporate into its culture. As long as we are constantly working to fulfill our potential for greatness, as a discipline of ethics, such growth naturally yields an experience of profound personal fulfillment and human flourishing.  

Even though most people believe ethics is critically important in a civilized world, ethics is not taught in public schools nor do universities require one college course in ethics for undergraduates.  Thus, the third precondition for cultivating human flourishing in the workplace is to provide opportunities for employees to learn ethics, to ensure decision-making and human interactions are based on principles of ethics, first and foremost.  When ethics is considered a competitive advantage, business performance improves, as the following ETHISPHERE research shows:

The three human factors of freedom, meaning, and growth, within an ethics narrative, are necessary but insufficient for human flourishing in the workplace.  For human flourishing to be sustainable, it is necessary to understand the paradoxical nature of the human condition, the fourth precondition.

The human condition is fundamentally paradoxical

When all attempts to solve a problem fail, we stop looking for solutions and start looking for ways to cope with or manage the problem, at which point the problem becomes the new normal.  This is the reason human flourishing in the workplace is a chronic problem for most businesses, where conventional management interventions don’t work.

The new normal is to dislike your job, and it’s absurd that most business leaders are inept at creating a flourishing company culture where people love to come to work.  Here, we assert that the human condition of the workplace is broken, and originates from false beliefs about the paradoxical nature of human flourishing.  There are at least four sustainable human traditions where paradox is a fundamental:  Science, Buddhism, Judaism and Psychology.

In science, data is always considered true.  When a scientific experiment is conducted, it must be run at least twice, without changing the inputs, procedures and equipment, in order to ensure that all variables are being controlled and that the experiment consistently predicts the output data. When the output data sets of two identical experiments contradict, this constitutes a paradox internal to the scientist’s theory.  The scientist’s job is to then resolve the paradox by first validating that the inputs, procedures and equipment did not vary.  If not, the only other explanation for the contradiction is that there is at least one other variable the scientist did not control during the experiment, or the theory is wrong.  He/she must then speculate what those other variables might be, then design new experiments to test these other variables until the experimenter can formulate a better predictive theory that reconciles all the paradoxes rendered across the regime of experiments.  Scientists are in the business of reconciling paradoxes.

If you travel to Tibet and climb the Tibetan mountains where the ancient Buddhist temples stand, you will see two statues guarding the gates and entrances to the temples.  One statue represents paradox - the other statue represents confusion. The paradox and confusion statues are guarding the truth, which can be found a little further away inside the temple. Paradox naturally causes confusion, and confusion indicates that the person is being confronted by a paradox, an internal contradiction of the truth.  Both Buddhists and scientists are seeking the truth by reconciling the paradoxes they encounter in their respective disciplines.

Like science and Buddhism, the principle of paradox is fundamental to Judaism. Approximately two thousand years ago when the Talmud was being written, Rabbi Yishmael developed thirteen hermeneutical rules for analyzing the Torah, the Bible of Moses, otherwise referred to as The Old Testament.  The thirteenth rule says:  if two statements in the Torah contradict, a third statement must be brought from the Torah that reconciles the contradiction.  Analogous to science where all data is considered true, all statements in the Torah are considered true, under the assumption G-d is the author. The truth cannot contradict itself, so when a contradiction is discovered in the Torah, it indicates some of the truth is missing. Seeking a third statement in the Torah that reconciles the paradox, is analogous to seeking new output data that reconciles contradictions in empirical science. Here again we see that Judaism, like science and Buddhism, reconciles paradoxes in the pursuit of the truth.

Psychology is the fourth tradition where the principle of paradox is fundamental. People seek the services of a psychotherapist when they realize they lack self-control. Either they can’t control chronic unwanted thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, behaviors or recurring life situations. When all attempts to solve our chronic problem fail, we seek the services of a psychotherapist, coach or consultant, i.e. a “subject matter expert”. Paradoxical psychotherapists use paradox as an injunction. A “pragmatic paradox” is a technique that instructs the client to create their unwanted symptoms or to worsen their symptoms proactively, which requires an act of free will.  Given that the client is seeking therapy in order to rid themselves of their symptoms, by instructing the client to do the opposite, the therapist has placed the client into a paradoxical condition. Clinical research on the efficacy of the “pragmatic paradox” reports that when a client discovers they have the ability to freely recreate or worsen their symptoms, the client's condition improves.[1] 

Science, Buddhism, Judaism, and Psychotherapy are highly sustainable disciplines that demonstrate the fundamental importance of paradox to the human condition, which suggests that the human nervous system has evolved biologically to recognize and resolve paradox instinctually.

Paradox pertaining to survival and human flourishing

Paradox is an internal contradiction.  Logic dictates that a contradiction of any kind indicates that something is either false and/or some of the truth is missing, which in either case represents potential harm.  For example, if someone lies to you and you believe them, you now perceive the world falsely, which could lead you to get hurt.  Or, if something is true but you don’t perceive it, this too can lead you to get hurt.  Therefore, since any form of contradiction represents potential harm, our nervous system must react to the contradiction in order to survive whatever the potential harm might be. Paradox is a fundamental survival function of our nervous system.

All organisms need to survive. The survival imperative is based on the premise that the world is hard and dangerous and the human body is soft and vulnerable.  In order to survive in a hard and dangerous world, our nervous system needs to maintain a subsystem of beliefs composed of information that correctly represents (describes and explains) how the world works. It is through our five senses that the nervous system monitors the world in which we must survive.  The nervous system interprets the information that streams into it through our five senses, based on a priori information that constitutes our beliefs about how the world works.  The output of this interpretation process are our perceptions of and how we experience the world at every moment.

Because our nervous system is designed to survive, it automatically reacts to paradox. Since, with very few exceptions, employees need to work in order to survive, the nervous system of all employees is attuned to avoiding, preventing and reconciling contradictions (paradox) internal to the workplace. This natural automatic survival imperative suppresses human flourishing at work by discouraging employees from disagreeing with or doing anything else that might contradict the status quo, especially those in power. Furthermore, to minimize contradictions to the greatest extent, an employee’s nervous system will naturally conform to the company culture and adapt by mirroring the way those in power speak and behave, i.e. employees are always at risk of becoming puppets of their employer, which is the antithesis of human flourishing.  

The suppression of human flourishing also becomes chronic due to the self-fulfilling nature of beliefs.  Belief systems constitute information that describe and explain how the world works, including the human condition in the workplace. Information becomes a belief only if there is a sufficient level of certainty that the information is true.  Therefore by definition, all beliefs, whether true or false, are coded ‘true’ inside our nervous system. Because false beliefs are also coded ‘true’, by definition we don’t know which of our beliefs are false. Since behavior is a function of perception, and perception is a function of belief, false beliefs cause chronic ineffective behavior and poor performance, in or outside the workplace.  Until a false belief is discovered, the chronic performance problems they cause will persist, including the chronic lack of human flourishing in the workplace.

A common human pitfall that contributes to the self-fulfilling nature of beliefs is our inclination to assume that an explanation is true simply because it makes sense, when in fact it is false. When a paradox occurs, the nervous system may attempt to reconcile the contradiction by formulating an explanation.  The explanation will make sense to us because it is derived from our beliefs, but since all belief systems are partially false, the explanation may also be partially false even though it makes sense.  If we accept an explanation simply because it makes sense, we may inadvertently reinforce our false beliefs, which will render similar contradictions and the problems they cause to recur.  Thus beliefs, whether true or false become self-fulfilling. To avoid this pitfall, don’t believe an explanation simply because it makes sense without proof of its validity.

When two people or groups interact, it is inevitable that contradictions will occur given that everyone has an admixture of true and false beliefs.  The problem is, when a contradiction between two people or groups occurs, how can one know who possesses the false information and/or who lacks the truth? Since false beliefs by definition are hidden, then at the moment a contradiction occurs, it is not possible to know with certainty who or what is wrong.  However, each person will perceive they are right and the other is wrong, because all beliefs are coded ‘true’ in our respective nervous systems. Unless people possess the ethic to seek the truth cooperatively through a process of validation, by examining the evidence for and logic of their respective beliefs/positions, progress and human flourishing will decline.

Hacked by our own nervous system


A hacker is a schemer who attempts to gain illegal access to someone else’s property.  For example, a “computer hacker” is someone who contacts a naive person on the internet, falsely presenting themselves as a legitimate agent of a bank or a leading technology company, offering to solve a problem the naive person was not aware they had.  The hacker will request the hackee to relinquish their password or social security number in order to gain access to the hackee’s account, for the purpose of causing damage, stealing their money or identity, etc.

A second example is “brain hacking.”  Social media companies use AI technology to track and record your every click, like, dislike, URL, etc., and the duration of time you spend on every page while on their website.  The AI system uses this data to build a behavioral model of each user in order to hack the user’s time on the platform and to better predict the products each user will buy.  Social media companies sell this highly predictive behavioral data to their advertisers, given the precision with which they can hack the users attention toward targeted advertisements.  It has been shown that social media “brain hacking” monetization strategies can cause psychological harm to social media users.[2]

A third example of hacking is alluded to in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden biblical story, where the Serpent - the hacker - pretends, in contradiction to its true nature, to be a friendly creature.  G-d warns Adam and Eve, that in order to survive they must not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.  On the same day, Eve encounters the friendly Serpent who contradicts G-d by telling Eve that she will become god-like and won’t die by eating from the Forbidden Tree.  Like all hackers, who give the impression they are acting in the client’s best interest, the friendly Serpent tempted Eve, who then tempted Adam to eat from the Forbidden Tree,
causing an immediate downturn in human flourishing.  Historically, hacking continues to be a chronic human problem.

Analogously, our own nervous system is a biological intelligence hacker that continuously issues thoughts, feelings, emotions, body sensations, desires, perceptions and explanations into our mind, in order to capture our attention and influence our behavior. Sometimes we choose to do what our nervous system tempts us to do and the result is good, but sometimes it's bad.  Inversely, sometimes we DON’T choose to do what our nervous system tempts us to do and the result is good, but sometimes it's bad.  However, whenever we freely choose NOT to do what our nervous system tempts us to do, we are freely choosing to contradict, i.e. disobey/override, our own nervous system. Thus from the perspective of our nervous system, our free will is often uncooperative and is a potentially harmful agent in the environment it must survive in.

In order to maintain control of our behavior, our nervous system must devise hacks, which are schemes designed to entice us to choose to behave consistent with its beliefs about how to survive.  Hacks manifest as a flow of recurring thoughts, feelings, body sensations, emotions, desires, perceptions and explanations, etc., all of which emanate from our beliefs about how the world works.  Like all hacks, if we are unaware that we are being hacked, even by our own nervous system, the hack will cause chronic unwanted problems given they emanate from partially false beliefs.  When a chronic unwanted problem arises, it is time to pivot, to choose, as an act of free will, to reimagine how we engage the workplace.  When we pivot, we flourish.

Furthermore, upon realizing that certain patterns of thoughts, feelings, emotions, desires, body sensations, perceptions and explanations, etc. may not be in our best interest, we can, as an act of free will, proactively anti-hack by choosing not to pay attention to them, by not giving voice to them and by not doing what they are designed to prompt/tempt us to do.  As we anti-hack our own nervous system, the unwanted signal patterns reduce in frequency over time, gradually freeing ourselves from them, which contributes to our sense of personal fulfillment, a necessary condition for human flourishing.  

Make Ethics Your New Superpower!

Given it is inevitable that our beliefs contain an admixture of true and false information about how the world works, especially about the human condition, we cannot entirely rely on our ability to judge the impact our decisions and actions will have on ourselves and others.  For this reason it behooves everyone to seek a source of wisdom, i.e. a framework of ethics in which to place our faith, to ensure we make the most ethical decisions given our circumstances at the time.  Civil law is such a framework, however civil laws establish only a baseline, primarily for how NOT to act.  Civil law does not include the upside of ethics, which are principles of behavior for proactively bestowing good upon others, such as the ethics of kindness, generosity, humility and dignity. In the final analysis, ethics, which dictates how we ought to treat each other, is what we care most about.  We know this is true from the simple observation that at the root of every human difficulty between people or groups, lies an ethical dilemma or issue.  This begs the question, how do people acquire their own framework of ethics?

Religious people get their ethics from ancient texts.  Atheists get their ethics from science, philosophy, ideology, heroes, culture, ethnicity, thought-leaders, etc. Millions of people seek wisdom on YouTube and other websites, where they follow popular scholars and culture gurus.  We seek wisdom from external sources because deep down everyone, with few exceptions, intuit that our own incumbent beliefs about how the human world works are flawed, inadequate and insufficient.

As our beliefs about the ethics of freedom, meaning and growth improve, so will our perceptions, performance, and human flourishing improve.  The most successful companies will make the ethics of human flourishing a competitive advantage by incorporating ethics into their strategic plans and culture. Under these conditions, employees will feel empowered at work, will look forward to coming to work, and will achieve personal fulfillment as they work, because their workplace will be safe and anti-risk averse.  Without the binding power of a corporate ethics narrative, self-interest and the competition for political power will prevail and will inevitably suppress human flourishing in the workplace.

A paradoxical intervention for human flourishing in the workplace

Develop a training program On the Ethics of Human Flourishing in the Workplace, and give all employees the option to enroll.

Ethical leaders ought to complete the training program first, will naturally encourage their direct reports to complete the program, who in turn will encourage their downline to complete the program, until all employees have been offered training in human flourishing. At no point should the program be mandated, because employees will feel forced, not free, to enroll into the program, which would contradict the freedom precondition for human flourishing. Sharing principles of ethics and ethical experiences with others is the best method for building an ethical culture.

Employees will naturally  encourage their peers to complete the training program as the ethics narrative proliferates throughout the company. The entire culture of the company will become highly ethical organically and human flourishing will become self-sustaining.

As more employees are trained on the ethics of human flourishing, more employees will be able to observe and recognize the paradoxical dynamics of the human condition within themselves and the company, and will be better equipped to solve the chronic business problems they encounter during the course of their work.  

Given the natural risk-averse survival imperative of the human nervous system, human flourishing will improve as the anti-risk averse ethic is adopted by the culture, so that employees feel safe to take risks that may fail. Human flourishing will improve as employees are rewarded and recognized for well thought out ethics-based risk-taking behavior.  

Copyright © 2022 Richard S. Messing                                                                

[1] Weeks, G.R and L’abate, L., Paradoxical Psychotherapy: Theory and Practice with Individuals, Couples, and Families, Brunner/Maxel, Inc - New York; 1982, p. 4-7.

[2] See The Social Dilemma