Innovating Business Ethics: The UK Values Report - Putting character first 

08 December 2022

Tags: Ethical Values

The Oxford Character Project outline the results of their UK Business Values Survey in this week's Innovating Business Ethics blog.

We at the Oxford Character Project conducted a UK Business Values survey with 221 companies to identify their publicly stated values, understand how these values are defined, and how they are put into practice. Our findings revealed collaboration as the new number one value in UK businesses, with other values on the rise and others that remain infrequent despite research supporting their importance. Instead of focusing on any specific value, leaders may adopt a more holistic approach, putting character first. Character calls on the support of a network of values and virtues to help organisations cultivate the behaviour needed to meet their aspirational values.  Focusing on a network of virtues and values equips individuals with strong decision-making so that they not only adhere to rules and guidelines but excel beyond them. 

UK Business Values Survey 

With an increasing focus on values due to their role in helping organisations navigate change, our research reveals that while organisations continue to identify key values, they often fall short when it comes to taking intentional steps to put them into practice. At The Oxford Character Project, we aim to develop a new generation of wise thinkers and good leaders and we see character to be at the heart of good leadership. We understand character as the guiding core of who we are – a mosaic of personal qualities that are developed over time and govern how we consistently perceive, think, feel, and act. While character is certainly about being a moral person who does the right thing, it can be much more as it equips people to flourish by enabling them to set aspirations that align with their values and develop a set of behaviours that support those aspirations. We believe good leadership can occur anywhere, whether in a position of leadership or not. Yet those in leadership roles have positional influence, and therefore their behaviour conveys what should be valued and modelled. Leaders who develop their character can be better equipped to align their behaviour with their aspirations and be examples to their organisation of how to do so. 

We recently published our UK Business Values Survey, which is the first of its kind in the UK for the last 7 years. We examined websites and annual reports from 221 UK companies in order to identify their values, understand how they define and select their values, and how they put them into practice. Our UK Values Report provides insight into what UK Businesses value most and what deserves more attention. Our findings revealed that collaboration is now the number one value, with the previous poll leader, integrity, at number two. We found that empathy, passion, and courage are prominent values that did not feature significantly in earlier reports, which highlights the increasing importance of personal and emotional aspects of organisational life. Despite research supporting their importance, curiosity, humility, hope, and gratitude are rarely mentioned values in business.

Our findings show that organisations tend to define their top value(s) with a set of supporting values and virtues. For example, organisations frequently used diversity and inclusion, teamwork, and being supportive to define collaboration. And organisations frequently used doing the right thing, honesty, trust, and respect to define integrity. You can explore an extensive list of how companies defined their values using our interactive graphic found here. These findings suggest that organisations see the need to call on a set of values and virtues to support their top values. But some are continually overlooked despite their critical role to support organisational potential and impact.

Do the values at the bottom of the list matter? 

While the values at the bottom of the list didn’t show up as frequently as the top values, they are essential to realize the aspiration of the top values and limit the unintended consequences of over-weighting some values and neglecting others. For example, the practice of integrity may fall short without the support of authenticity and curiosity, which were both only mentioned by 2.5% of companies, across the 221 UK companies. On the other hand, organisations that have strong integrity practices without the support of adaptability, humility, and gratitude (mentioned by only 6%, 1.5%, and 0.5% of organisations respectively), may become rigid and perhaps exclusionary, leading them to miss out on opportunities for collaborative and innovative ideas. You need not change your top values but rather see the critical underpinnings of leveraging character to support aspirations. Character is like the roots of the tree system that supports values, which are like the trunk of a tree.

Putting character first 

Instead of focusing on any specific value, leaders may adopt a more holistic approach, putting character first. Christian Miller, a leading philosopher of character at Wake Forest University, understands character as a set of dispositions that form beliefs and/or desires to act in certain ways. This habitual practice of feeling, thinking, and action inform a practice of judgment. While the systematic application of character as a strategic asset in business is new, the science of character dates back millennia and spans across both Western and Eastern traditions. Confucius, a Chinese philosopher born 551 BCE, introduced ideas such as justice, humanity, and humility, and Aristotle, a Greek philosopher born 384 BCE, declared character to be a virtuous set of habits, both foundational concepts present in our modern understanding of character.

Great leaders practice strong judgment, or what Aristotle referred to as practical wisdom, allowing them to mitigate mistakes, not by being risk-averse, but by supporting their organisational aspirations as they navigate complexity and competing demands to advance the flourishing of people around them. Aristotle suggested that practical wisdom functions as “the golden mean”, practiced between the vices of deficiency and excess. For example, the virtue of courage is practiced between the deficiency of cowardly behaviour and the excess of reckless behaviour. Both deficient and excess vices compromise judgment, reflecting a lack of practical wisdom, which leads to unethical behaviour. Cowardly behaviour may manifest as individuals being fearful to speak up or do the right thing, whereas reckless behaviour may manifest as individuals taking unnecessary and dangerous risks because it isn’t supported by foresight, justice, and accountability.

The scandals of Wells Fargo, Volkswagen, Enron, and others are likely not the result of bad people doing bad things, but more likely a result of compromised judgment informed by prioritizing some values, without the proper support of others such as humility and gratitude (Furlong et al., 2017). Virtues not only support “good” behaviour by helping individuals adhere to rules and regulations, but they support “excellent” behaviour by enabling individuals to excel beyond them because a network of virtues and values have been cultivated to inform effective decision-making in various situations – even where rules may not yet exist. You can review a more comprehensive list of virtues and vices here

Leveraging values with character 

Leveraging character brings values to life by enabling them to manifest as intended, rather than falling short or in excess. Character calls on the support of a network of values and virtues to help strengthen values, and to ensure they don’t manifest as excess vices. For example, while a company’s top value may be courage, individuals who continue struggling to speak up and do the right thing may require the support of humility to enhance their comfort level to make mistakes. On the other hand, a company’s top value of courage, unsupported by temperance, accountability, and justice, may result in a culture of recklessness, lying, and cheating. Both are examples of the unintended consequence of placing courage as a top value, without also prioritizing the support of other values and virtues. While every situation may not require all virtues, developing character is about having the ability to cultivate the appropriate virtues when needed to implement a consistent practice of optimized decision-making. This approach will lead to an organisational culture that values the interconnectedness of all values and virtues, placing an emphasis on habits that inform strong judgment to support organisational aspirations and mitigate unethical behaviour. 

What individuals can do 

Individuals can strengthen their character by targeting the development of virtues through consistent practice, like what is required to strengthen a muscle. To illustrate how character can be developed, we will provide an example of an exercise that can be practiced daily to strengthen collaboration. The classic improvisation principle known as the “yes, and” rule encourages the acceptance of ideas and requires flexibility and open-mindedness to build upon ideas, all of which are key behaviours associated with collaboration. Implementing the “yes, and” exercise into one conversation each day can strengthen collaboration. Strengthening character will equip individuals with stronger decision-making, enabling them to align their behaviours with the company’s intended values. 

What leaders can do 

While individuals have the agency to develop their own character, it can be enhanced if their environment includes practices that support their character development, rewards their character, and where a strong character is normative behaviour. Leaders can leverage character by embedding practices that support individual character development. Music can be used as a powerful tool to activate any virtue and is easily accessible and universal. For example, the song Imagine by John Lennon can activate a sense of inspiration and drive. Or the song Truth and Honesty by Aretha Franklin can inspire courage and integrity. You can access various character playlists here.

Leaders can also align HR initiatives through character-based appraisals, choosing leaders with strong character, and recruiting individuals with strong character. This demonstrates that the organisation values character through action, which will fuel others to focus on the development of their own character. It also enhances character as a normative behaviour as leaders and new recruits continue to exemplify strong character. A champion of this initiative is Ron Francis, general manager of the National Hockey League (NHL), Seattle Kraken team. At the 2022 NHL combine where teams can interview prospective athletes, one athlete asked Seattle what they were looking for in a player, to which Ron immediately responded, “character”. Ron understands the value of recruiting players that already reflect their intended character-based culture so that they support their intended values and cultivate character development of others in the organisation. Another organisation that has prioritized character-based selection and recruitment is Canada Revenue Agency, championed by Steven Virgin and Sonia Côté, who have pioneered efforts to bring character-based leadership into a large organisation.

Coming up next 

Our UK Business Values survey focused on three major sectors including Finance, Law, and Tech. We have examined each area’s stated external values, along with a large-scale study of perspectives from people working in each sector. As results become available, we will share specific insights from each area and provide examples from companies whom we have partnered with. Each will be supported with ideas of what companies can do to bring their values to life. We cordially invite you as IBE members to join our research. Please reach out to us at The Oxford Character Project to get involved (we are actively seeking UK tech firms in particular).


Oxford Character Project
Oxford Character Project

Written by Corey Crossan, Lily Elsner, Anjali Sarker, and Edward Brooks from the Oxford Character Project – where we focus on the human dynamics of leadership and the qualities of character that enable leaders to build trust, think with clarity, embrace diversity, empower others, and persevere through difficult times.