Building a culture of positive ethics

November 1, 2012
Filed under Ethics

Andreas Widmer writes that practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. He provides some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues. Leaders, he writes, must strive to train their will and build their own virtues first . . . 

Andreas Widmer

by Andreas Widmer

Have you ever wondered how a person loses control of their car and crashes into that one solitary tree along the street — not the 359 degrees around him that don’t have trees, but that one degree that does?

When I learned to drive in Switzerland, I trained on ice. What you learn is simple: When you think you’ve lost control of the car, you haven’t really. As the car seemingly spins out of control, don’t look at that tree. Instead, keep looking where you actually want to go and you won’t crash into the tree. You drive where you’re focused.

When pursuing goals, it’s better to aim for what you want to achieve than to focus on what you don’t want. In business ethics, the same principle applies: What behavior do you want? What are you aspiring to? What’s the virtue you want to pursue? These are much more effective and actionable questions than “What do you not want to do? What behavior do you want to avoid?” It’s more effective to focus on pursuing the virtue than avoiding the vice.

Saint John Cassian, who brought monastic spirituality to the West, learned from the Desert Fathers over 1,700 years ago that we have seven primary kinds of thoughts. We think about food, pleasure, possessions, emotions, moods, reputation and ourselves. They are ordered by increasing complexity and each thought is on a continuum with vice on one extreme (seven deadly sins) and virtue on the other (seven virtues).

The Desert Fathers’ advice is not to focus on avoiding vice, but rather to focus on practicing virtue. As leaders we must strive to train our will and build our own virtues first. Without mastering our own appetites, we cannot justly guide our company’s overall mastering of the various appetites we’re exposed to as a group.

Practicing business virtue might be as simple as increasing communications with employees or providing a forum for suggestions and complaints. Here are some ideas and questions to help you sharpen your focus on your most critical virtues:

Temperance: What appetites do you want your company to have? Does your company create products or provide services that allow customers to practice temperance? Do you celebrate both days of plenty and days of “fasting”? Do you encourage your employees to help feed the poor?

Wholesomeness: Does your company make its case to customers and employees by deploying positive advertising and communication — and portraying wholesomeness? Are people seen and treated as unique and irreplaceable? Do you pay just wages across the board?

Justice: Is it clear to people who deal with your firm that you value people more than material things? Do your actions reinforce that? How is success celebrated? Is your company culture “entitlement driven” or is it “gratitude driven”?

Good Naturedness: Is your company “reactive” or “proactive”? Does your culture promote coercion or conversion of its employees, customers and other participants? Do you provide a means for your employees, customers and shareholders to express their concerns and issues?

Confidence: Does your company promote egotism or a healthy self-confidence? Does your company flame up its audience’s envy or solidarity? Are your company communications truthful and constructive? Do you speak respectfully about your competitors?

Involvement: Does your company stand for something larger than itself? Does its culture promote nihilism or purpose? Does it believe in and affirm the human person?

Humility: What actions would communicate to your customers and employees that your company holds itself to the same standards as everyone else? Has your company ever admitted a fault or mistake and made up for it?

In many years running a strategy consulting firm, I have learned that it’s hard for a company to achieve something if everyone on the team doesn’t precisely know what that goal is. Successful goals are defined in the positive: Tell me where you want me to go, what you want me to do, not the opposite.

In the next two weeks, take five specific, visible and consequential actions in your company or your team to exemplify one of the virtues you aspire to promote. The results will amaze you. Save your company from crashing through vices, and aim at the virtues!

Andreas Widmer is director of entrepreneurship programs at The Catholic University of America. He is the author of “The Pope & The CEO: Pope John Paul II’s Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard,” and a frequent speaker on issues related to business ethics, entrepreneurship, and business leadership.

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