There are a lot of ways to define what is critical within organizations: the employee value proposition, the mission, the values, and the vision statements.
Is one more important than the others? That’s a question that each organization must figure out. A group of words created in the confines of a conference room carry no value if the organization does not eat, breathe, and sleep what they believe in.
These statements are supposed to be the foundation of their organization and a guiding light, not only in good times, but in bad times as well.
The meaning of organizational character
In the search for organizational bedrock, let’s look at this in another way: If organizations were people, what would we wish most to understand about them?
Character is the inner core of a human being. If each of us were and onion and the layers could be peeled back, what we would have left at the core would be our character. It is the center. This core determines how we act when no one is watching or listening. You act because it is the right thing to do. Your definition of the “right thing” is your moral compass.
Should we seek it in our organizations? However you answer that question, it doesn’t matter because the workforce is looking for it. People don’t join and engage with organizations, at least over the long term, unless they are about more than just profit motive. People are looking for a bigger hook and some alignment with their lives. If we think it, as Jerry Maguire says in the movie, is all about “show me the money,” we are sadly mistaken.
The great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” The word “character” comes from the Greek term “engrave.” In other words, it is etched in stone or our inner being. Once that etching is ingrained, it is not easily changed. It is expressed in so many different ways: words, attitudes, our interaction, our mindset, and in all sorts of behaviors. But like a rubber band, its always comes back to form.
I was told by an older man on my first job that you should always live your life as if someone is always watching or listening. An organization survives shifts in people and leadership because the core is there.
When organizations have character, they can build on it. But if they do not begin with a strong character, they will have a hard time ending with it.
An earlier version of this post was published in HR Insights. The author has since left the organization.
Your turn: What is the character of your organization? Use the comment box to share your thoughts.