This article previously appeared in the Rochester Business Journal and is republished here with permission.
As I approach the 10th anniversary of my decision to leave law and pursue a career in business ethics, I think back to those early days when I cast about in the wilderness for direction. Besides reading everything I could get my hands on about the field, I joined the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association and attended business ethics seminars.
Looking back at that experience now, I’ve come to realize that some of the first lessons I learned were the most potent. Chief among these was a very powerful idea I rejected for many years, but have now come to embrace.
In April 2003, I left the law department of Crompton Corp. and accepted a position as the company’s first Vice President, Business Ethics and Compliance. Although I had experience in developing and implementing safety, health and environmental compliance management systems, I knew I had a lot to learn to satisfy the Board’s expectations and implement a world-class compliance and ethics program. Fortunately for me, while performing an Internet search for business ethics courses, I came across an Ethical Fitness Seminar offered by the Institute for Global Ethics.
On the appointed day, I traveled to the institute’s headquarters in Camden, Maine, where the seminar was to be held over a day and a half. Rushworth Kidder, the institute’s founder and president, facilitated the session, which was attended by an eclectic group of people from business and the non-profit sector, one of whom was a chaplain at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
At one point in the seminar, Kidder asked us to pretend we were a school Board, finalizing plans for a new school building. He explained that the school was to feature a large arch over the front door, and he asked us to suppose that the keystone had room for masons to carve five moral values that students would see every time they entered the school. Our job was to reach a consensus on what these five words should be.
Kidder asked us to brainstorm as a group and call out any moral values that leapt to mind. He recorded our ideas on large easel paper, which he pinned to the walls for all to see. After about 30 minutes, we had more than 100 words describing every value we could think of. Kidder then split our group in half and asked each subgroup to reach a consensus separately on the five words that should appear on the school’s archway.
After much debate, the two groups reached agreement on the five values they prized most and reassembled in a plenary session. To our great surprise, we discovered that both groups had selected the same five values. Kidder then turned a projector on to display a PowerPoint slide listing exactly the same five values. We were astounded—not only that the two groups had selected the same words out of so many possible combinations, but also that Kidder had accurately predicted what they would be.
Kidder explained that he had known we would select the five values listed on his slide because everyone always does. He had performed the same exercise in countries around the world with many different groups, he said, and the results were always the same. He asserted that there must be something very special about these moral values that causes so many to prize them above all others. These five values are: respect, responsibility, fairness, honesty, compassion.
The insight I gained from this exercise had a significant and lasting effect on my thinking. When I returned to work, I suggested to colleagues who were helping me draft Crompton’s code of business ethics that we include one or more of the five values in our code, define them and characterize them as our company’s “core values.”
During the discussion that followed, we agreed that the first four values—respect, responsibility, fairness and honesty—seemed to work well, but we were reluctant to include compassion on the list. We thought this value was a bit too touchy-feely to be used in a corporate code of conduct. So we decided to leave compassion out of the code. This is a decision I now regret.
The whole idea behind articulating core values in a code of conduct is to ground the document in concepts that promote productive human relationships, thus assisting the organization to achieve its stated goals. Respect, responsibility, fairness and honesty clearly satisfy this purpose in the corporate setting. But I now believe that compassion is equally indispensible for healthy relationships both inside and outside of the work environment.
One of the primary reasons for this belief is that we all learn by making mistakes. This is the reason why leaders who are not compassionate and seek to run “no defects” workplaces are so ineffective. By giving their colleagues a slap down instead of a hand up when mistakes are made, these leaders damage relationships, destroy loyalty, stifle risk-taking and innovation and generally make everyone around them anxious and miserable.
By contrast, leaders who hold others accountable in a respectful way, while at the same time giving their colleagues the room they need to learn and grow, earn trust and loyalty and create a positive work environment in which people have the opportunity to reach their potential and retain their dignity.
So start your year right by making a resolution to bring compassion to work with you every day—along with respect, responsibility, fairness and honesty.