Unfashionable character

We judge art, books and wine, but offering an opinion on someone's personal qualities is seen as elitist. So how do we encourage integrity?

by Richard Reeves, who may be contacted at:richard@richard-reeves.com
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The first headmaster of Stowe school, JF Roxburgh, wanted to turn out young men who would be 'acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck'. Similarly, Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement, aimed to induce in his young charges 'some of the spirit of self-negation, self-discipline, sense of humour, responsibility, helpfulness to others, loyalty and patriotism which go to make "character"'. The great B-P described his movement as a 'character factory'.

The idea of individual character is now out of fashion. It is entirely appropriate to discuss the character of the corporation - indeed, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones do so in an excellent book of that title - but not of its individual members. This is a pity. Many of the attributes that companies seek in 'good employees' are character traits. Look again at Baden-Powell's list.

The ideal character he describes is one who is able to put wider objectives before their own needs, take responsibility for their actions, be loyal to friends, company or cause, to exercise self-restraint and discipline, and have a good laugh along the way. It's not a bad summary of an ideal workmate.

It is important to distinguish between someone's personality and their character. There is an entire industry focused on probing the depths of people's personalities, and on advising companies how to manage them. The most famous is the Myers-Briggs schema, developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, during the Second World War. Heavily influenced by Karl Jung, the result of their work was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The test indicates whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, a thinker or a sensor, a judger or perceiver. There is a very good chance, as an MT reader, that you know your MBTI type. One American company even asked its employees to wear coloured name-badges indicating their Myers Briggs type, in order to help others to relate to them appropriately.

The Myers-Briggs test passes no judgment of its own. All the types are seen as equal, merely different. Of course, in certain jobs, it will be helpful to be an extrovert and in others an introvert, but no general value judgment is made. By contrast, the attributes that make up character are clearly filed under either good or bad. Honesty, loyalty, integrity, concern for others, a strong work ethic, or a willingness to take responsibility: these character traits are far more important in any business than whether somebody is an INTJ or ESFP.

In some ways, this is too obvious to be worth saying. Nobody would argue for hiring the lying, cheating, feckless characters. But I think the avoidance of discussions on individual character has a deeper basis than its obvious importance. It results from an unwillingness to pass judgment on others. Indeed, it has become an insult to describe someone as 'judgmental'.

It is a mark of discernment to be able to differentiate between fine and foul wine, between great art and populist pap, and between literature and 'chick-lit' or 'lad-lit'. Applying the same criteria to our fellow creatures is seen as unacceptably elitist. But if we agree that some people have a good character, we also have to recognise that others have a bad one. This flies in the face of our modern, rhetorical egalitarianism, in which it is necessary to pretend that all people are equal while recognising that this is far from the truth.

The same shrinking away from judgment underlies the failure of most appraisal systems. A recent survey found that more than half of managers admitted that they pulled their punches when passing on negative criticism of an employee's performance. There are all kinds of reasons for this reluctance, most obviously cowardice. But there is also a fear of presenting somebody with the bare facts of their own failures. It is somehow not done. So appraisals become merely 'praisals' rather than genuine assessments. And so people remain blissfully unaware that they are underperforming in various aspects of their job or life, and so have no need to improve.

Appraisals could even touch on aspects of character. Although there is no doubt that a large part of the formation of character takes place in our earliest years of childhood, our characters continue to develop over the course of our lives. Indeed, we can change our own character, and it can be changed for us by our institutional, social and cultural surroundings.

Trustworthiness may be seen as a malleable aspect of our character. In fact, as work by Jessica Cohen for the US-based Brookings Institution has shown, trusting organisations create more trustworthy employees - who remain more trustworthy even when they move on to other organisations. Similarly, it is possible to learn greater self-discipline, although, as any dieter will tell you, it's not easy!

It is possible to learn to manage our own desires more effectively, although hyper-consumerism, saturation-bombing by advertisers and half-price Toblerones on newsagent counters do not help. As the Hollywood actress once said, nowadays even instant gratification isn't quick enough for some people.

If organisations want to have a good character, to be institutions marked by integrity, honesty and high ethics, they must employ - and also help to create - people of good character, too.

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