Most people assume that values are an either/or issue: Good people have them and bad people don’t. Yet recent brain research shows that all people probably have blind spots. For example, research on “bounded ethicality” shows that otherwise good people routinely contradict their own values in ways they may not realize at the time. Through small, unconscious, often rushed decisions, people may do or say something that doesn’t fit who they mean to be — and then move on so quickly they aren’t even aware of it.
How can leaders apply the concept of bounded ethicality to help them truly live their values and shape their company’s culture for the better? I would start with three priorities.
1. Adopt a growth mind-set to living your personal and corporate values. We should define a good person as someone who continuously grows and improves. This ensures their identities are not threatened by minor lapses.
2. Shift how you respond to contradictions in others. We should recognize that even well-intended people often contradict their values without realizing it, so we can view an incongruence as a chance to engage. In these situations, try to find out whether the other person is interested in receiving feedback and learning.
3. Shape your company’s systems and shared habits to activate the best in people. Many leaders act on company values in interpersonal workplace interactions but fail to apply them in designing systems, work processes, and shared habits. In these instances, small “nudges” to align systems with values can have a multiplier effect on company culture.
In this post on strategy+business, Why Living Your Values Takes Work, I go into more depth on the science behind this process and how leaders can take constructive action.
At a minimum, the research suggests that living your values, and shaping a “values-in-action” company culture requires ongoing work, including discovery of what is currently working, where there are gaps, and credible steps to integrate values into action more fully. The good news is a values-in-action culture is a massive differentiator in attracting and engaging employees, attracting and retaining customers, and even responding to crises. If I can be of help on that journey, please do let me know.
All the best,