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Moral Compass: Setting Your Course on Shared Human Values

A discussion with Colleen Doyle Bryant, author of Rooted in Decency, on what has caused today's divisive culture and the impact of values on leadership and management.

A woman in a blue shirt sitting in a chair.

What has happened to common decency? The current culture of incivility and divisiveness often rears its ugly head in the workplace, which can damage employee engagement, productivity and retention. How did we get here, and what can leaders do to move their teams—and themselves—out of this "us versus them" mentality?

People + Strategy executive editor David Reimer sat down with Colleen Doyle Bryant, author of Rooted in Decency: Finding Inner Peace in a World Gone Sideways (LoveWell Press, 2022), to discuss intriguing reasons behind today's divisive culture and how society can get to a shared set of values that promotes  cooperation and trust.

People + Strategy: How did you get interested in the topic of values?

Colleen Doyle Bryant: I started writing about values and character more than a decade ago for children and for teens—teaching them how to be honest, respectful and responsible. Those materials have been integrated into curriculums around the world. I knew how important it is to have a sense of your values and who you are and how you engage with people. But as we've been living through ugly periods in American society recently, I started to question why there are so many adults who aren't practicing what they preach in the way they treat each other. The level of vitriol was not like anything I'd seen in my lifetime. I started asking why.

P+S: Why don't we talk about values more among adults?

Bryant: A big reason is that emotions drive our moral decision-making. So when you look at the science of how people come to a moral decision, it starts with emotion and biology first. We feel as if something is right or wrong, and our body chimes in with support for our position. If we have to justify that position, then we may start thinking intellectually about it.

People tend to struggle at times to articulate the why behind their beliefs. If we're going to have conversations about right or wrong, we need a way to talk about our values and a way to express why we're drawing the lines where we're drawing them. The value continuums in my book, Rooted in Decency, offer a framework and common language to help us explain where we draw those lines.

P+S: What guidance do you provide for people to engage in this reflection at a personal level?

Bryant: As individuals, we live our lives through our relationships. That's how life works. We figured out a long time ago that our chances of surviving and thriving are much better when we form relationships with people based on trust and fairness, so that we can cooperate toward a level of well-being that we can't achieve on our own. That's the essence of all social human interaction.

That said, since the '60s, we've been very focused on the individual. We've been focused on how do I feel, what do I want to do, how do I find purpose? We need to help people reengage with the idea that their well-being comes from the way they interact with other people. When we do that, we create these waves of well-being for others that then cycle back to us, so there's always this give and take. As much as we might like to think life is all about us, it's never really just about us.

And so when we talk about defining your personal values, a lot of people will start with tests that ask them to pick any three to five words off a list about what drives them and what they value in life. But pursuing the things you value isn't the same as acting with moral values. Someone might pick wealth, autonomy, and creativity as things that are important in their life. But they can pursue wealth autonomously and creatively in a completely immoral way. So there's a difference between this idea of personal values that drive my interest and the moral values that put more good and less harm into the world.

P+S: So how do you refine that conversation to focus more on moral values?

Bryant: It comes back to this idea that we are not individuals living in bubbles by ourselves. We find our meaning, purpose, our worth in life through interacting with others. And so the first question to build honest self-awareness is: How do I interact with other people? What sort of impact am I having? Am I kind? Am I helpful? Do people value me? Do I make choices that are in line with what I think is right or wrong? Can I look at myself in the mirror and know that no matter what's happening around me in the world, I've made choices that I'm okay with? So the first step is that honest self-assessment.

One point to add is that the way society now thinks about self-esteem can interrupt that process. There's a difference between self-esteem and self-respect, and people need to reengage on the idea of self-respect and put aside this modern, somewhat self-absorbed and unrealistic view of self-esteem. It's not helping any of us.

P+S: Can you elaborate on the difference between these two: self-esteem and self-respect?

Bryant: In our everyday conversations, we often use self-worth, self-esteem and self-respect interchangeably. But starting in the '80s and '90s, some psychology research showed that people who felt better about themselves did better in life. The way we interpreted that was to say, if we help people feel better about themselves, they'll do better in life. And that morphed into, if people should feel good about themselves, then they shouldn't feel bad about themselves. We changed the way we parented, taught and coached sports so kids wouldn't ever feel bad about themselves. Everybody gets a trophy. You don't criticize. You just support participation.

But this was actually fairly destructive. We had good intentions, but we misinterpreted the data. When researchers went back 20 years later, they realized that the relationship was backward. It wasn't that feeling good about yourself helped you achieve good things in life, but it was the effort that went into achieving those things that helped you feel good. It is the self-control, the perseverance, facing uncomfortable and difficult things, overcoming failures and seeing the consequences of our own actions that help us build an internal sense of our own worth.

So today's self-esteem is this external thing where people can tell you how great you are whether or not it's true. They can give it to you, and they can take it away from you. But self-respect is something you earn by seeing the evidence of your own actions in the way you've impacted yourself and other people. So an emphasis on self-esteem interrupts the logic of: If I feel bad, I should make different choices to recover a positive sense of myself. We see a lot of issues today where people don't have the skills to pull themselves out of negative feelings they have about themselves.

P+S: What are the implications of that from an organizational and leadership perspective?

Bryant: Companies talk much more today about mental health and wellness, and some of that stems from the fact that life isn't always happy and great, but we need ways to cope with it. The research shows that when you have people who are feeling mental effects because of stress, for instance, you can either decrease the stress or you can increase their self-confidence and their ability to deal with the challenge that is causing the stress.

So as leaders, what kind of tools can we give employees to help them have the ability to handle a challenge that will, in turn, help them come back to a better mental state?

P+S: That's a big shift from an earlier era when people were just expected to do their job.

Bryant: The way we show up with our values changes based on the social, political and economic conditions of the time. So these four values that I talk about often—truth, respect, responsibility and compassion—are always the layer on which all social life is built (see box, previous page). But the way people focus on them evolves.

The notion of "conform and be loyal" came out of the '50s. Coming out of the war period, people wanted stability and security. They were willing to give up some autonomy and expression because they wanted a stable environment where they got a paycheck and they could take care of their families. That was enough. Leaders didn't have to care about what was happening in their employees' lives outside of work. They didn't have to care about their feelings.

But since the rise of individualism in the '60s, that whole picture has been changing. There's always an exchange between a leader and an employee, but our expectations for the give-and-take in that relationship have evolved with the culture and the politics and the economics of the time. There's much more of an expectation that managers and leaders should negotiate these nuanced challenges about what people want and need today.   

P+S: To your earlier point about the importance of a shared understanding of what values mean, it would seem that people could interpret a word like "respect" very differently.

Bryant: If you look at how people define toxic workplace cultures, what's the number one reason they give? Disrespect. So clearly people don't have the same ideas about what acting with respect looks like.

This is an important distinction, in that if you treat a person with care, you're not necessarily treating them with care because you respect them. It's not necessarily because you have esteem for them as a person. It's because you value something—some reason that you should be treating them with care. That reason may be that you value a polite workplace, or that you value the idea that all people should be treated with dignity.

So in a time when society is so divisive and people are not being very respectful to each other, we need to remember that if you value civil society, and if you value the concept that I should respect your rights and dignities because I want you to respect mine, then I need to be respectful for a purpose outside of how I feel about you.

P+S: That point really captures what it feels like at this moment in our society.

Bryant: We're at this inflection point about society when many people are saying, hey, we're probably not really living up to our ideals and principles about fairness. What could that look like? What should that look like? What are the standards for the relationship between an employee and their employer, between a citizen and their country and between individuals? When we're talking about fairness, we're talking about responsibility. We're talking about how we treat each other with the four core values.

It's not that truth, respect, responsibility and compassion didn't matter in the Jack Welch era. They just appeared differently. We're in this phase of social change where we're not quite sure what the new standards looks like. We're not really agreeing on what's fair and where the lines are for compassion and responsibility. We're working it out by trial and error, and it's business leaders who are offering up ideas: Well, maybe we could do it this way, and what if we did it that way? Today, business leaders are helping architect the social change.

P+S: What steps should HR leaders and C-suite teams take to make sure their companies are living their core values?

Bryant: The first step is to get an assessment of the reality of people's lives at work and how they are treating each other. The fact that toxic workplace cultures were such a driver of people leaving businesses, as we saw as part of the Great Resignation, surprised people. The fact that it was 10 times more powerful a factor in their decision to leave than compensation, as research has shown, really surprised people. Regardless of whether companies use words like integrity and respect in their stated values, leaders need to understand whether their employees are in fact experiencing those values. If not, then leaders need to understand why.

P+S: What's your advice to a young person just beginning their career for how to think about their values? Because in an earlier era, people had more of a separation of how they showed up at work and in the rest of their lives.

Bryant: These values that we've been discussing are about how we pursue our self-interest in a way that has a positive effect on other people. We get our sense of purpose from creating that positive effect outside of ourselves. So the question is, no matter what role you're playing: In what way am I creating positive ripples? My authentic self at home needs to be true to the ways I want to have an impact on people. But the responsibilities I have, the way I go about them, the expectations for the give and take in home relationships are different than the ones at work.

At work, I can still be me and I can still be true to my values. But at the same time, there's a different expectation in work relationships. There's a different give and take, and there's a different closeness and distance that should be honored.

One of the problems we're seeing with so many people working at home during the pandemic is that we used to be able to go to work, and at work you were in a society with its own norms where you played a role. And there was the commute home during which you transitioned out of that and you became your home self. And if you had a bad day in one place, you might have a better day in the other.

That gave us more depth to who we were as people. It gave us more ways that we could balance out the good and bad moments in life. So I would say embrace the fact that you play different roles. That's okay. It doesn't mean you're being fake. You just figure out what your authentic self looks like in each of those roles with consistent values about treating people well.   

Colleen Doyle Bryant is the author of five books and more than 50 learning resources about making good choices for the right reason. Her latest book is Rooted in Decency: Finding Inner Peace in a World Gone Sideways (LoveWell Press, 2022). In addition, her Talking with Trees series for elementary students and Truth Be Told series for teens are used in curriculums to teach good character traits and social emotional skills.


The 4 Key Points: Truth, Respect, Responsibility and Compassion

I found myself asking, in a society where some people think they are absolutely right and other people think they are horribly, morally wrong, how can we have such different ideas? Where do our ideas about right and wrong come from?

And so I went back into history. Who says what is right and wrong? And if you roll back the clock to before we had legal systems and moral codes in religions, people lived together in these early societies and needed ways to form relationships. They needed to be able to trust each other so they could cooperate, because that was the only way they were going to survive the difficulties of life. The behaviors that helped society were valued and encouraged, and those essential behaviors became "values."

The same values—truth, respect, responsibility and compassion—show up over and over again, and not just in the moral codes of religions. They show up today in happiness science and the self-help arena. They show up in business books about what makes effective teams. So these four values are consistent because they are the essential foundation for how people cooperate and have relationships.

–Colleen Doyle Bryant


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