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Bringing purpose to life

How behaviours build character and shape culture

Our behaviour is influenced and shaped by our environment

We are constantly developing and form habits and dispositions to behave naturally in certain ways through repeated action and practice. The word character signifies that as we develop through life we form settled dispositions – habits and ways of behaving which become part of who we are and ideally contribute to our personal development and fulfilment.

But, as discussed in the book Out of Character – by Desteno and Valdesolo, character does not always determine how we act – our behaviour is to a degree situational, influenced and formed by the behaviours of others and the ‘culture’ in which we are in “…our personality and character reflect the groups that socialized us and the groups with which we identify and to which we want to belong.” In Organizational Culture and Leadership Edgar Schein argues that each business has its own corporate identity “culture is to a group what personality is to an individual” – we are for example able to distinguish Apple from Microsoft or John Lewis from Marks and Spencer. He defines culture in terms of espoused beliefs and values, mental models, rituals, symbols, history and basic underlying assumptions.

Any business is essentially a shared human endeavour, and there are a number of ways in which the culture within a business can influence how people habitually behave. The key point here is that any business changes and forms people in one way or another. We are each affected in some ways by our experience of work and the quality of relationships there. Over time, these can also shape and influence our own values and beliefs, and how we habitually behave.

Character is built through habitual behaviours

The behaviours in our Framework draw on the wisdom traditions, and the ethical tradition of virtue ethics, an approach which goes back to Aristotle in the West and Confucius in the East. This tradition sees the ethical and practical as inseparable. It emphasises that we form habits of behaviour and that there are no ethical rules determining every situation. But equally, there is no sphere of daily life where ethical considerations are irrelevant. We live and work in a moral space all the time, and our ethical dispositions develop constantly and build on the tacit knowledge – the wisdom and sensitivity – that we acquire but often cannot articulate. Exercising this practical wisdom day in day out in business and choosing the appropriate response, which will inevitably vary depending on the precise situation, will be a combination of competence and character.

A further aspect of this way of thinking is that it escapes the dualism of self-interest and altruism. The development of character is an expression both of a desire to grow and develop – seeking personal fulfilment – including through the quality of relationships – and, at the same time, through those relationships respecting the value of the other person. The ‘common goods’ that are then created – like friendships – have a distinct value because they are held in common and not reducible to either pure self-interest or altruism. Rather they simply reflect the fact that human beings are relational, and we find our own fulfilment in relationships with others.  In a knowledge economy, much of the intangible value of a business is in fact precisely in the quality of these relationships where talented people work together, committed to a shared purpose.

For more on what we mean by common goods and our view of people and a purpose led cultures you might find the following courses useful: