It is an old truism: employees do not turn to written statements on the company intranet for clues about how to behave—they look to each other. If your goal is to intentionally shape the actions and interactions of employees, you know the importance of creating a "values-based" culture. However, you also know how difficult it is to implement one.
Zappos, a present-day paragon, has seemed to crack the cultural code. So much in fact that they have built a business that teaches others how do it. Thousands of companies from around the world travel to the Las Vegas headquarters to see how Zapponians "live their 10 WOW values." They can choose the 60-minute tour to observe the culture in action or attend a fully immersive, 3-day boot camp. If you take a moment to consider this fact, it is quite amazing. Zappos turned their culture into an attraction that warrants a price for admission. In doing so, they send a clear message to all those who seek the proverbial keys to the cultural kingdom: it is not easy to replicate the "secret sauce."
In fact, a recent study conducted by Boston Research Group, based on a survey of thousands of Americans from every rung of the corporate ladder, found that only 3% of those surveyed described their company’s values as a form of "self-governance." In this category, employees are guided by a set of values that inspire everyone to align their actions around a common set of principles. Management scientists explain this low percentage as a classic case of leadership rhetoric versus behavior; however, the field of human psychology holds surprising insight into more pervasive factors at play.
For companies to truly close the chasm between their stated and lived values, they must enter the human psyche to extract excellence from the inside-out, not dictate it from outside-in. This requires organizations to pivot their approach: rather than get people to live the values, they should focus on the values that live in the people. This taps into the innate qualities that exist across mankind: human virtues.
While virtues have been around since Aristotle, two seminal psychologists from the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman and the late Chris Peterson, undertook research to identify the universal traits that are best about human beings. They combed through nearly 2,500 years of history to identify six core "virtues" found across religions, cultures, nations, and belief systems.
The virtues that made the cut were wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Each virtue contains three to five character strengths, with a total of 24 topping the list. You, just like every other person you work with, have five "signature" strengths—like a unique strain of DNA—that make up the "real you."
If you're interested in learning more about it, check out award-winning director Tiffany Shlain's 8 minute film, The Science of Character.
And, if you want to get serious about building a culture that lives its values, below are five reasons why a focus on virtues will accelerate your path forward:
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones spent three years investigating what it would look like to create the best workplace on earth. One of their key findings was a deceptively simple notion: people will not follow a leader they feel is inauthentic. In fact, even those who have no one to follow—that is, executives at the top—claim they want the very same thing as their followers: an authentic organization. As research out of London Business School found, employees who feel welcome to express their authentic selves at work exhibit higher levels of organizational commitment, individual performance, and propensity to help others.
The ideal company makes its best employees even better—and the least of them better than they ever thought they could be. Employees are not just looking for the best places to work. They want to join the best places to grow. Harvard Business Review's recent blog post "Does Your Company Make You a Better Person?" demonstrates the value of belonging to a workplace where you know that in addition to working on projects, problems, and products, you are constantly working on yourself.
A recent study conducted by Dan Cable, Francesca Gino, and Bradley Staats found that when companies emphasize newcomers’ authentic best selves, versus an organizational identity, it contributes to greater customer satisfaction and employee retention after six months.
According to Gallup, two of the most important predictors of employee retention and satisfaction are reporting to use your top strengths at work and reporting that your manager recognizes your top strengths. And yet, studies show that only about one-third of people can identify their own strengths. Even more disheartening, only 17% of people reportedly use their strengths most of the time each day.
Most organizations have mechanisms to help increase their employees’ level of self-awareness and uncover their blind spots. But the focus is typically on weaknesses. Research suggests blind spots around your strengths are equally plausible. According to Robert Biswas-Diener, executive coach and managing director of Positive Acorn, you can also experience strengths blindness: you are blind to a personal strength because what others see as extraordinary you live with daily, and therefore see as merely ordinary.
Organizations that realize this potent potential for human excellence will transcend their current cultures and create a greenhouse effect: shining brightness on what is best about their people while cultivating the conditions for any organizational value system to live, breathe, and flourish.
—Jessica Amortegui works in leadership development for VMware. She is currently pursuing her master’s in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.