At Work

Character Matters for Workplace Culture, All the Way up the Corporate Ladder

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How important is character to a thriving workplace culture?

Our executive director here at IFWE, Hugh Whelchel, has worked with several struggling companies that needed turning around. He told me that in each case a primary element of success was establishing a clear corporate culture – certain values that the company would emphasize.

He said the success of each company was determined by how much senior management embraced and modeled those values.

There is no doubt that the culture of a workplace profoundly influences the satisfaction of those working there. What is culture in this context? By “culture,” I mean the values, attitudes, and actions of people from the top leadership on down.

There have been attempts to create a set of values, a working philosophy, to which the company ascribes. In many cases, though, there is an attempt to teach virtue and character without God.

Doing so leaves us without a sufficient reason for fully embracing particular values deliberately and consistently, leading to a collapse in workplace culture.

In one instance, which I detail later in this post, this failure contributed to the closing of an entire manufacturing plant.

Character without God

The problem with character education without God is that once you strip virtue and character of its theological foundation, there is no solid reason why you ought to be the kind of person prescribed.

James Davison Hunter in his insightful book, The Death of Character, points out that,

[The] demise of character begins with the destruction of creeds, the convictions, and the ‘god terms’ that made those creeds sacred to us and inviolable within us. Once our values are stripped of their ‘commanding character’ then the value is reduced to utility, personal preference, or community consensus.

Hunter argues that contemporary moral education, though well-intentioned, actually “undermines the capacity to form the convictions on which character must be based if it is to exist at all.”

We are desperately seeking a renewal of character but are not willing to give it a sufficient foundation. Hunter writes:

To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt and shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist on it; we want more community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.

Even though upholding particular virtues can help everyone in a company to know what the foundational philosophy is about, it doesn’t answer the question: “Why?” One management consultant maintains that “unless there is a sufficient reason why we ought to do something the cost will always be too great.”

Real Consequences for Embracing Character in Your Workplace Culture

When I was teaching at the Ligonier Study Center with R. C. Sproul, we hosted a corporate training group on teaching the “Value of the Person.” The emphasis of the training was on teaching love, dignity, and respect in the workplace.

At the training, there was a manufacturer who was starting an automotive factory and wanted a unique culture.

The mid-level supervisors received the training first. They were initially skeptical that they would really be treated with love, dignity, and respect.

As the seminar unfolded, their arms and legs began uncrossing, and their looks of doubtfulness became expressions of hope that this factory would be different from others in which they had worked. On the last day, they gave glowing responses to what they’d learned.

One man said he and his wife never have deep conversations, but during the seminar, they talked for two hours about the potential to transform the workplace!

At a later session, the top-level management expressed skepticism that never really went away. For instance, they couldn’t conceive how you could uphold love, dignity, and respect and fire someone.

Nevertheless, they taught the “Value of the Person” to all their workers. It soon became clear that management was not implementing this philosophy in how they treated the workers, though. Because they had raised the expectations so high, there were long, hostile strikes until eventually they had to close the plant.

It is not enough to have a corporate philosophy. It is also important for everyone to believe and embrace it at the deepest level, and implement it deliberately and consistently.

Above all, in order for all this to be genuine, there needs to be a sufficient reason “Why?” Corporate culture will only be as strong as the commitment of everyone in the company to the values stated.

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