Morality matters in management and leadership. Ideas about right and wrong have always been pervasive in human literature and philosophy throughout the ages. Morality is a universal human concern. The question is, whose take on right and wrong matters the most? Is it the Pope? Is it the government? Is it the shareholders? Or is it the stakeholders? Is morality best determined by the individual or the collective? What about cultural norms?
One way to deal with the complexity of the moral questions in a global world is to say I am going to be neutral and not be offensive to anyone. My colleagues can have their values and I can respect them. In contrast, I can have different values and all is well. The problem with the neutrality approach is that it limits human connection and genuine heartfelt conversation.
Another way is to cling hard and fast to a very specific and concrete moral code in a fundamentalist manner. Those who are in the “right” are applauded, and those who do not abide by this specific set of rules are clearly in the wrong. The certainty can feel just great. The downside of all that clarity is that you may miss nuance. You may miss gray areas or be at a loss when choices are between two wrongs or two rights.
Add to all this the fact that it is a global economy, and your team is likely culturally and religiously diverse. How can a 21st century leader who aspires to do the right thing make sense of all of this?
Psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson set about the mission of creating a manual of “sanities” grounded in the science of psychology. The manual of “sanities” was in contrast to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders that is well known in clinical circles. Their mission was to identify and highlight what was right with human nature that had stood the test of time and was viewed as universally positive across cultures.
Their exhaustive study over a number of years resulted in the Values in Action Classification of Character Strengths. There are 24 character strengths, which fall into five buckets. The five buckets include wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Think about it for a second. Who can argue with the importance of wisdom and knowledge? The wisdom and knowledge bucket contains the following character strengths: creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, and perspective. You need to look at the specific definitions for words like curiosity, but for the most part the words mean what you think they mean.
Go on the viacharacter.org site, take the free assessment, and you will have a list of your top five character strengths within minutes. You can also see several groupings of the 24 character strengths of the VIA site.
Once you’ve got your results, how can you apply your new insights? Here are three ideas. Pick one and give it a try.
Familiarize yourself with the language of the model. Print out the complete list of strengths on one page and keep it with you for a few days. You will find the language easy to pick up. Then, start noticing when your friends, colleagues, and family demonstrate one of the strengths. You can comment or not. But just challenge yourself to notice at first. When you feel ready to comment, notice how people react. In the words of Dale Carnegie, you are likely to win friends and influence people.
Look at your top five strengths. One of my top five strengths is love of learning. I have the opportunity to demonstrate this in my daily work as an executive coach. But I sometimes take it for granted. People often say how on earth do you read all that stuff? I read all that stuff naturally and as a result, I often take my own strength in love of learning for granted. Notice and give yourself credit for your own character strengths. Giving yourself a genuine pat on the back will up your confidence. Also look for ways to express your top five strengths more in your daily work. Prioritize activities that allow for expression of those top five character strengths.
Look at the list of 24 character strengths and write down one that you would like to demonstrate more. It is helpful to round out ourselves and increase the level of character strengths that may not happen naturally for us. Think of someone at work who does demonstrate that strength. Make time to be around them. It is not magic; notice what that person does and doesn’t do. Here is an example. Zest is one of the 24 and falls in the courage bucket. Zest is defined as vitality, enthusiasm, and vigor. This is one of my lowest reported numbers on the instrument. I want to be zestier, so I make an effort to be around people who demonstrate a lot of vitality and enthusiasm. If I am around people that I experience as both high in zest and intellectually agile, I feel more energy and vitality myself. I have to see them as both intelligent and zesty. The combination is important; just zesty without intellectual heft actually makes me tired.
We are in need of ways to talk about morality and virtue that are inclusive and practical. The idea of avoiding the discussion of morality in the workplace, while easier in many ways, is just not conducive to creating workplaces where people have honest dialogue. A lack of discussion or too much recitation of rules—especially plastered on the walls—always makes me nervous.
Morality matters. The real challenge is how we live out our moral beliefs in the details of our daily work lives. When we begin to live and practice virtues on a regular basis, research clearly indicates that we are likely to experience a higher degree of purpose and fulfillment.
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