‘Work Sets Us Free’ or ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is perhaps the most chilling phrase known the world over. A statement of intent appealing to hope but instead it was used to create destruction, misery and death.

A tragic paradox with multiple layers thereby making any comment regarding this statement very risky. Like any other subject, whatever we say can be used against us.

The ‘social police’ standing on the sideline are often quick to point out thinking errors which can be both good and bad. For example, a significant danger exists of drawing non-existent parallels between different situations.

The easiest thing to do then would be to walk away from this statement given its horrific shadow yet keeping the dialogue strictly confined to war memorials is likely not the answer either.

Using occasions such as memorials to talk about this may create the perception that war is an isolated event rather than the outcome of an ever-evolving day-to-day situation that got out of hand, badly.

Moreover, turning our backs, not speaking up or indifference were exactly the kind of ingredients to create a breeding ground for events like the Holocaust to happen.

Following the recent financial crisis in 2008, there is noticeable civil unrest, significant geopolitical uncertainty and general discontent with quick fix isolationist policies to appease people seemingly on the rise.  

This situation strikes a familiar tone.

Without trying to reclaim anything, regular dialogues to drag ‘Work Sets Us Free’ out of the gutter involving the appropriate specialists can help set us onto a path to freedom at an individual, enterprise, country and global level.

The following non-exhaustive list of topics are well-known:

  • Purpose
  • Ethos, Ethics & Culture
  • Norms, Diversity & Inclusivity
  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Governance
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Human Welfare
  • ….

These impressive concepts may look familiar on paper however the question is what is done in practice.

This demands a step up in leadership at all levels.

Given that many people are in employment globally, the kind of work people do, what they do it for and how this impacts our environment at large matters a great deal.

Organisations exist to solve problems in society, not to add to them.

Having a job, income and security is important for sure however it does not exempt us from taking responsibility for what is happening around us. We are not just a small cog within a bigger wheel.

If certain practices have a negative impact on our (working) environment, it is important to think beyond self to stick up for what we believe in to rid ourselves of undue influences.  

Once the problem is sufficiently large, it is easy to recognise but difficult to undo. Slippery practices that lead up to these situations are more subtle, never obvious or perhaps often unintentional.

It can either be a pattern of uncaring, selfish and dismissive behaviours or people sharing half-truths, engaging in tit-for-tats or avoid questioning altogether. A blame game is another telltale sign of lack of leadership.

A true leader knows when to step in, step down or involve others.

Our every day (corporate) lives are filled with scenarios that could contribute eventually to the commitment of horrendous financial, mental or physical crimes either directly or indirectly. 

There is no checklist specifying exact behaviours that lead up to this nor are these behaviours related to a specific country, culture or religion. It can happen anywhere, and the question afterwards tends to be the same.

On a more encouraging note, there is no need to transition to a new operating model to protect ourselves from these awful scenarios.

It is a matter of travelling back to our younger, more ambitious less fearful selves when we instinctively knew in our heart of hearts right from wrong using basic principles.

However, it is important to use our life experience to give each other some breathing space, exercise patience and acknowledge nobody is perfect all the time. There is no higher ground here.

Behavioural science stipulates that it is often difficult to change behaviours by telling people what they already know. Instead we should ask questions hence the title of this piece.

Anne Frank was just another child who carefully observed the world around her. This young girl expressed the hope that some day her writings would contribute to something worthwhile.

Anne Frank writes ‘how wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.’ A better working world makes the world work better.

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