Why Virtues Hinder Workability

Does your company struggle with keeping your values as something more than just words on a poster in the break room? Or, how do you build values into your organization so that your company truly operates by those values?

The answer lies in not being so virtuous.

Let’s consider the most famous set of values out there, the Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus.

When you boil it down, the Ten Commandments were a set of rules established by the Jewish people as a way to make their society more workable. If everyone were stealing from each other, for instance, or running around with each other’s spouse, that wouldn’t make for a very sustainable community.

The mistake we make is that we apply these commandments as virtues, meaning that when we violate a commandment, we fail a moral code and become a “bad” person. But that’s just not workable. It makes sense for children to honor their parents, for example. But what happens when a parent tells their kid to do something stupid, like cheat on their taxes? If the child disobeys their parent, are they now in violation of the virtue of honoring them? A more drastic example might be when someone attacks me and, in fighting back, I kill him or her. Am I wrong to have done that?

Now think about what a company does when it creates its core values. Choices common to many companies often sound a lot like virtues: trust, honesty, and loyalty. And they use these values to judge each other or, because they know they can’t live up to them 100% of the time, they just ignore them. They put them on a wall and never use them – unless they want to demonize the people they push out. But I believe your company values should be focused on driving Workability in your organization – not providing a way for people to judge each other about whether they are being virtuous or not.

Case in point: One of the values we have at my company, ITX, is integrity – widely understood as “we are going to do what we say we are going to do.” Integrity also happens to be a popular value for many organizations. After all, who wants to do business with anyone who lacks integrity?

But integrity can mean different things to different people. If I were to walk down the street and ask ten people to define integrity, each answer would be slightly different.

At the same time, if I ask each of those same people if they thought that they personally exemplified integrity, I would expect to get ten affirmative answers. “Of course I have integrity,” I would expect to hear. That’s because integrity is widely considered a virtue in our society and saying that someone lacks integrity is akin to calling him or her a liar.

In fact, I find myself out of integrity every day. I miss phone calls, show up late for appointments, and forget to pick up milk at the market on my way home from the office after I said I would.

But wait, you must be asking, how can you have integrity as a value if you admit to violating it?

Quite simply, because we don’t apply integrity as a virtue. If we did, we would create incentives for people to be untruthful about their actions because they wouldn’t want to be seen as bad. At ITX, we define integrity differently. For us, it means we will keep our word, and will clean up the mess if we don’t.

Let’s say I promise to get you a report by Monday. But, for whatever reason, I realize there is no chance I am going to get it to you on time, even though you need it for a board meeting you have on Tuesday morning. Clearly, I have failed to do what I said I was going to do.

I broke my word and hence, did not act with integrity. We’ve all been there. But that’s why our corporate values are different than virtues – because virtues don’t always lead to Workability.

When someone is out of alignment with a value, the idea is to judge the circumstances to be unworkable – not judge the person to be bad. By doing that you create an opening for the person to clean up the mess they created. And you’ve created an opening to be a resource for them rather than just being a judge.

In our example, you still need the information for your board meeting. So I need to either work late to get the report complete or be creative and get you the most critical material now, which you can use for your meeting, and then follow up with the rest later on.

Rather than judging me because I was out of integrity, you gave me an opening to take action by thinking of integrity as a value and not a virtue. Sure, you would have preferred to get the full report sooner. And yes, if I mess up again, we need to have another conversation about performance. But the point is that we put our joint focus more on solving the problem and taking action rather than on simply passing judgment, which accomplishes very little in the end.

The goal in setting values should never be about simply delivering admonishment or punishment along the lines that someone was “bad” like you might do with a virtue. Rather, when you create your corporate values, you need to spend as much time sharing stories about what your team members can do if they find themselves out of alignment with the company’s values.

Did you miss an appointment with a customer? We’re not going to fire you for it. Just figure out how to make it right. Forget to pick up something on your way home? Grab your car keys and go fix it. Workability is all about giving people the room to redeem themselves when they do make a mistake – which we all will from time to time.

Put simply, our goal at ITX is not to create a culture that strives to never break its word. That won’t lead to Workability, only a less productive workplace that aims low. When we focus on virtues, people become more reluctant to promise anything because they become worried about being judged. As a result, nothing extraordinary happens. You cannot win the game of virtues. But if you give people openings for action by building your values around Workability, you can begin to play a much bigger game with a limitless ceiling. Which begs the question: What kind of game are you playing in your workplace?





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One comment on “Why Virtues Hinder Workability
  1. Mike Gastin says:

    Ralph, I like your concept of workability. It contains a pragmatism that’s useful when dealing with a group of people all coming to the organization with different experiences, values, world views and goals.

    I don’t agree with your reductionist take on the ten commandments, but for me your main point about organizational workability still holds. But, I think your views on the ten commandments are better discussed over a bottle of wine.

    Good article.

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