A core value for our behavioral age

Groucho Marx famously said: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” When it comes to companies committing to follow key principles to guide their behavior – what are often called “core values” – there is clearly no shortage of options. Indeed, this posting on the Threads web site offers 500 ideas for those in the market for values.

One value that I see occasionally (but not frequently) selected for “core” status is humility. Kellogg, for instance, includes humility among several other core values.  Humility is not principally about ethics – Kellogg embraces an integrity value too (as is the case with a large number of companies). But I do see humility as having an important role to play in promoting compliance and ethics in business organizations, in several ways.

First, humility is a logical and arguably inevitable response to the vast body of behavioral ethics research showing “we are not as ethical as we think.”  Thinking and acting with humility is indeed a way of operationalizing behavioral ethics. (For a list of behavioral ethics and compliance posts click here. Also, please see this recent article in the NY Times on behavioral ethics and the notion of “servant leadership.”)

Second, humility is well suited for addressing ethical challenges that are based not on the purposeful failure to be honest but on the less well-appreciated dangers of being careless. (For a post on that click here.) Recognizing the limits of one’s abilities – which is part of being humble –  should help underscore the need for carefulness.

Finally, humility has the potential to resonate deeply in our political, as well as business, culture. By this I mean humility can help form part of a broader mutually supporting relationship between business ethics and what might be called societal ethics of the sort described in other posts.

From a professional viewpoint the benefits to the business side are of most immediate interest to me, but as a citizen (hopefully in the broad sense) I know that the societal dimension is of greater importance. So, let me close by quoting what is one of the best (albeit largely forgotten) expressions of humility’s role in societal ethics, which  can be found in Learned Hand’s “Spirit of Liberty” speech: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right [and] which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women…”  Delivered in 1944 – when the US and other democracies were engaged in a truly existential battle for survival – these words have never been more compelling than they are today.

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