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The Mighty Seeds of Generosity

Regenerations/4 - Human beings give a lot only if they are free to give all

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 23/08/2015

Logo rigenerazioni rid"Real kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others..."

A. Phillips e B. TaylorOn Kindness

Businesses and organizations are good places for a good and fulfilling life if and until they let non-economic virtues live alongside with the economic-business ones. It is a decisive co-existence that is not easy at all, because it requires managers to give up total control over the behaviour of people, to accept an element of unpredictability in their actions and to be willing to relativize efficiency, which is becoming the real dogma of the new religion of our time.

Generosity is one of these non-economic virtues that, however, are also essential to every business and institution. The root of generosity lies in the Latin word genus, generis, a term that refers to race, family, birth - this is also the first meaning of the word gender. This ancient etymology - that is lost now - tells us important things about generosity. First of all it reminds us that our generosity has much to do with the transmission of life: with our family, with the people around us, with the environment in which we grow up and where we learn how to live. We receive it as an inheritance when we come into the world. It is a gift that our parents and relatives pass on to us. Generosity is formed inside the family home. The generosity we find in ourselves is very dependent on that of our parents, how and how much love there had been amongst them before we were born, the life choices they made and the ones they make when we start looking at them. It all depends on their faithfulness, their hospitality, their attitude to the poor, their willingness to "waste" time to listen to and help their friends, the love and respect they show towards their parents.

This primary generosity is not a personal virtue, but a gift that becomes part of the moral and spiritual standard of what is called character. It is a capital with which we come to the world, which was formed before our birth and is nourished by the quality of relationships in the earliest years of our life. It also depends on the generosity of our grandparents, great-grandparents, neighbours, and that of many others who may not be contributing to our DNA but are still present, in mysterious but very real ways, in our own generosity (and non-generosity). My generosity is influenced by the poets who have nourished the heart of our family. By the prayers of my people, the musicians I love and listen to, by the storytellers in village festivals, by the speeches and actions of politicians, by the sermons of preachers. By the martyrs of resistance, who gave their life yesterday for my freedom today. By the generosity of countless women of the past centuries (there is a great affinity between women and generosity), that many times placed the flourishing of the family they gave birth to before their own - and still continue to do so. Generosity generates gratitude towards those who have made us generous by their own generosity.

Living with generous people makes us more generous - and the same is true for prayer, music, beauty.... The cultivation of generosity produces many more effects than the ones we can see and measure - and the same goes for our non-generosity and that of others. The stock of generosity of a family, a community or a people is something like the sum total of the generosity of each and every member of it. Every generation increases or reduces the value of this stock, and the latter is happening today in Europe where our generation, impoverished in ideals and great passions, is squandering the wealth of generosity it has inherited. A state that leaves half of its young people without work is not a generous state.

Furthermore, our generosity goes less as we age. When we become adults and then old, we find ourselves naturally less generous. The future's horizon is suddenly finite and very near, and so time - which is the primary "currency" of generosity - becomes scarcer. There is never enough of it, and there is none of it for others. And so it takes a lot of work to conserve the generosity that we inherited and cultivated when we were young. Here generosity becomes a virtue because it takes a lot of love and pain to remain generous as the years go by.

But conserving generosity in ourselves is crucial if we want to continue to generate life. The words 'generosity' and 'generate' are sisters, one is read and explained with the other. Only those who are generous can generate, and the generation of life strengthens and nourishes generosity. A symptom of the decline of generosity is the non-fertility or infertility (sterility) of life. When we get together, often at any moment, without creativity and vitality, hoping to start generating again, we should be resolved to be generous again, in every age - the time donated in return by a generous person has infinite value.

In companies, which are simply part of life, there is often much generosity and so generativity. Entrepreneurs are generous by vocation, especially in the first phase of their activity, when the company is nothing but a treasure chest of dreams to realize, when new ideas are born every day, when one is so busy giving birth to new things that there is no time left for avarice and meanness. Good companies, even those that are very economic and industrial minded, have always been and are still born of generous people. When a business is launched, the generosity of the entrepreneurs, partners, managers, workers is not just important, it is essential for it to grow well. Without everyone's enthusiasm and dedication to exceed requirements of the employment contract and their duties, that is, without generosity, businesses are not born or do not last; only offices can be created this way to answer calls or to seize some speculative opportunities, but not companies that eventually become good and appealing.

Joy, the "sacrament" of every generous life, also accompanies the beginning of the adventures of young entrepreneurs and real businesses. But when the company grows and gradually becomes a complex organization that is bureaucratic and rationally oriented to profits, the original generosity of the entrepreneurs is reduced and the true selflessness of workers is no longer required nor encouraged. In its place there develops a subspecies of generosity: the one that is functional towards objectives, the one that's manageable and controllable. And so the dimension of surplus, abundance and freedom are taken away from the company. Generosity is not efficient, because it has an essential need of waste and redundancy. It is not eligible for incentives, because it does not respond to the logic of calculation.

This is what explains that an organizational culture built around the ideology of the incentive withers precisely that dimension of exceeding generosity in its members that allowed it to be innovative and generative in its best times. A company turned into institution wants only the kind of generosity that falls in its business plans: a limited, domesticated and reduced kind of generosity. But if generosity loses its tracts of waste and excess, it becomes distorted, something else. You cannot be generous "to reach goals".

Those who try to normalize generosity by cutting off the less manageable and more destabilizing dimensions from it do nothing but fight and kill that same generosity. Generosity bears good fruit if it is left free to create more fruits than necessary. The coexistence of "useful" and "useless" fruits is precisely one of the great enemies of capitalist enterprises and all bureaucratic institutions. With the help of technology we have managed to create "mandarins" without the annoying seeds; but if management techniques eliminate the "seeds" that are useless for the company from our generosity, generosity itself will disappear. Human beings give a lot only if they are free to give all. The quality of life inside our organizations will increasingly depend on the ability of their leaders to let more fruits than what they take to the market mature, to let the virtues that do not serve the company live and grow, too.

We have reached a new variation of the main paradox of modern organizations again. The growth in the dimensions and application of techniques and standardized methods for management and control mortify exactly those characteristics in the workers that have made them be born and what the company would still vitally need to continue to generate. This is a law that applies to all organizations, but is crucial when dealing with companies and communities that can survive if and only if they manage to place generous people in a position to exercise their generosity at work, too.

Finally, there is a particularly delicate aspect in the dynamics of generosity. It is what we call "organizational chastity". Generosity does not only suggest generating; it also suggests chastity, a word that may seem at odds with the other two only at first sight. A generous person does not "eat" or consume the beautiful people he or she sees around, but leaves them absolutely, profoundly free. A generous company-organization does not aspire to possess the totality of the time and soul of its best workers, even the special ones who almost completely determine its success. It is because it knows or feels that if it did so, these people would lose the very dimensions of beauty that made them excellent and special and that they need freedom and excess to stay alive. If I pluck the beautiful flower of the alpine valley to adorn the room I stay in, I have already decreed its end. And even when I conserve its roots and transplant it in my own garden, I will never sense the colours and the scent that attracted me in the mountains, because they were the result of spontaneous generosity of the whole valley, the sun, the minerals and the air there. The best young members of our organizations and communities remain bright and beautiful as long as we do not transplant them into the garden of our house, if they are not turned into a "private" good, only until we are willing to share their beauty with all the inhabitants of the valley. There are too many young people withering in large companies, and sometimes even in religious communities because they do not meet the generosity needed to maintain their excessive beauty. To safeguard the generosity of the people we need generous institutions, magnanimous people, souls that are greater than the goals of the organization.

There is a breath of infinity living in us. All places of life will continue to flourish as long as that breath remains alive, free and whole.

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