Character in the workplace has powerfully positive ripple effects

What do you think is the most desired way to be described in the workplace? There are so many possibilities to choose from: intelligent, expert, effective, productive, important, powerful, nice, kind, etc. The list goes on and on. Chances are, if we really had to choose just one word for our colleagues to say about us, it would have to do with what we call “character.” We sense that when someone praises our character, they are saying we possess what is most important in a person. In other words, even if we have every other desirable quality, if we lack good character, we lack something essential.

In the workplace, character typically shows through acting with respect, integrity, and ethical behavior. Respectful behavior is fundamental to a productive and engaged workplace. The ability to show respect—regardless of how we feel in the moment—flows from a commitment to treating all others as you would have them treat you. Our respectful speech and actions, though hard to precisely define, always convey similar messages, like, “I recognize your worth, I recognize your role, I recognize your idea.”

Integrity means doing the right thing even when it is difficult. The most important expressions of integrity in the workplace are dependability, honesty, loyalty, and good judgement. Integrity in the workplace is critical because it promotes a positive workplace culture. This is a culture where there is open communication, good decision making and a strong moral compass guiding all decisions and actions. By contrast, in a culture lacking in integrity, irresponsible behavior and distrust result in an uncomfortable and tense work environment. 

Exhibiting a high standard of ethical behavior is another aspect of good character. Ethical behavior is defined as acting in ways consistent with what society and individuals typically think are good values. In the workplace, ethical behavior involves demonstrating and valuing respect, honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights.

Another “character competency” that most of us admire in others at work, whether shown by a leader, peer, or subordinate, is the capacity to resolve conflicts in an open and direct manner. As we all know, workplace conflicts are natural and inevitable, and ignoring them can be costly. We also know that while it’s a natural human tendency to avoid uncomfortable conflict with others, that tactic won’t work in the long term. Provided one uses appropriate communication skills, it is more ethical for us to “step up” and have that difficult conversation, rather than avoid it.

It is helpful to realize that, even though people may shy away from it, conflict is actually normal and healthy. One thing we need to navigate our way through conflict effectively is candid and respectful communication. In fact, many believe this form of communication is vital to organizational success. For example, experts have found that the most effective teams are those in which members feel safe enough to disagree with one another. Such work groups are operating with good “Psychological Safety.” Research at Google and elsewhere shows that a team culture where dissent is allowed, or even encouraged, can spur innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making.

Finally, the premium that Yale places on our individual ethical behavior reflects how crucial it is for what’s called “organizational health.” According to thought leader Patrick Lencioni, author of the book “The Advantage,” all organizations experience issues such as distrust, politics, secrecy, confusion, negativity, and fear. But, the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy organization is the frequency and extent of such problems. If an organization is unhealthy, these dysfunctions tend to become widespread, and the resulting worsening of the “illness” shows up in key indicators like satisfaction, loyalty, productivity, and turnover. This is where ethics can play a vital role. Whether we realize it or not, our individual, daily acts of respect, integrity, and character have powerful ripple effects. As leaders and employees consistently demonstrate ethical behavior, inevitably the organizational culture becomes healthier, and everyone benefits.