What an obscure Danish philosopher can teach modern workplaces

Professor Knud E. L¯gstrup.

Unless you’re Danish, you have probably never heard of K.E. Løgstrup, who was a  Danish philosopher and theologian whose work has exerted considerable influence in postwar Nordic thought.

His most influential idea was presented in his 1956 book The Ethical Demand (Den Etiske Fordring).

Here’s the basic concept:

Trust is not of our own making; it is given. Our life is so constituted that it cannot be lived except as one person lays him or herself open to another person and puts him or herself into that person’s hands either by showing or claiming trust.

By our very attitude to another we help to shape that person’s world. By our attitude to the other person we help to determine the scope and hue of his or her world; we make it large or small, bright or drab, rich or dull, threatening or secure. We help to shape his or her world not by theories and views but by our very attitude towards him or her.

Herein lies the unarticulated and one might say anonymous demand that we take care of the life which trust has placed in our hands.

To paraphrase, he acknowledges the fundamentally social nature of humans. He says that you never interact with another human being without holding a little bit of that person’s life in your hand.

I think this applies in every aspect of life but in the workplace we often fall into a pattern of thinking that puts other concerns first and our attitude towards other human beings is affected by time pressure, economic pressure, performance pressure etc.

We know that conformity makes people very quickly adopt the norms and behaviors of people around them (especially people in authority) and toxic cultures very quickly make people act in ways that can border on sociopathic.

But it doesn’t matter what types of pressure your job brings to bear on you – none of that gives you license to treat other people with less than utmost respect and care. None of that gives you a pass to treat customers, coworkers, vendors etc badly.

This goes double for managers, whose bad behavior is always seen by employees and adopted as the new norm.

In short, while the ethical demand formulated by Løgstrup has become a lot harder to live by in modern workplaces, it remains as valid as ever.

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