by Colin Thomas
There is perhaps no other professional subject spoken about more often in the press and in HR sessions than character in the workplace. Yet it is poorly understood in principle and in practice. The steady stream of stories featuring C-Suite deceit in the form of scandals and immoral management decisions takes a toll on those involved and erode the nobility of business itself.
Where and when then does the breakdown of character in the workplace occur?
How does an enterprise and its leaders guide individual conceptualizations of right/wrong and codify them into a collective mentality?
The answer is rooted in remembering what we already know.
The homepage of most business websites highlights the “character” of the company. Core values, mission statements and community involvement projects allude to the entity’s underlying principles (Principle 1). From business students to entry level employees, to top executives, ethics is taught, practiced, and espoused unceasingly.
Yet seldom do discussions progress to asking the fundamental question: “What is character and why it is important?” As such, a clear encompassing and affirmative understanding of character is necessary before it can be described and applied. Prior to the development of a private philosophy on character, it is impossible to move the needle in the desired direction.
Character (according to the dictionary) is: “The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.”
Clearly, when we speak of the importance of character in the workplace, we mean the importance of good character in the workplace. So then, what is “good” character?
Good Character (according to Colin): “Action and intention emanating from a personal sense of right and wrong, informed by an acceptance and reverence for enduring universal principles.”
Workplace Character: The mental and moral qualities that distinguish an individual.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, columnist Bill Taylor provides a clear example through the lens of United Airline’s mismanagement of ticketing procedures last year, which ended with the incident involving an oversold plane, a doctor’s face, and an armrest. Taylor argues, “It’s time for leaders to toss out their rule books and trust their people.” In this, Taylor is specifically referencing United employees’ description of the “rules-based culture,” which created an environment where employees were afraid to make their own decisions.
Taylor then contrasts the company culture of United with that of Nordstrom, a company with a strong brand and a reputation for excellent customer service. Nordstrom has reduced its entire employee handbook to one sentence: “Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Policies like this enable good character to come into being–a process that is more like gardening than carpentry. The only practical way to develop and deploy good character is this seemingly idealistic strategy.
As soon as we seek to be practical, we become impractical. The foundation of my industry attests to this paradox of a principle – the Wright Brothers, Clyde Cessna, Bill Lear and other aviation pioneers saw far more than a balance sheet. What could be more impractical than defying gravity, geography and every other locational constraint exacted upon humankind since the dawn of time? These men had a clear end goal and pursued it with singular ardor. Character must be defined, elevated and pursued instead of merely measured against an arbitrary bar.
Living out good character can be a challenging proposition in the workplace, the navigation of which requires fluency in euphemistic business speech (rightsizing, streamlining, etc.), and the specter that many people face of upsetting their boss. Through personal experience and observation of many, I have come to believe good character in the workplace takes the form of a genuine desire to simply be genuine. If someone says and does something that is unethically sound, one must do well to remember that holding “short accounts” with coworkers, superiors and yourself keeps small failures and mistakes just that—small.
The freedom to address and learn from minor issues when they are minor encourages a positive organizational culture and ultimately, enables an enterprise to advance.
In the words of one of my older and wiser business mentors, “Be able to honestly describe everything you did at the office each day to your wife, your grandmother and your priest.” By remembering the roots/formation of good character taught and taking intentional steps to walk in them, we may just discover our own.