A few months ago I had a conversation with a man who stated, “Character can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t.” As I dug deeper with a few questions, I found that his belief was based on the idea that you learn character as a child and it is set by adulthood.
There was some truth in his perspective. The way we were taught and role models we followed as a child has a strong influence on our adult value system. However, this perspective does not take into consideration each person’s ability to grow in understanding and alter our values throughout adulthood.
On the surface it seems character is something that can’t be taught. This is often a result of an emotional response when someone has acted in a way that is hurtful or immoral in some way. We think to ourselves, that this person certainly couldn’t have an ounce of good character, if they act this way.
As the worlds #1 character-based leadership development company my colleagues and I work with company leaders, non-profit organizations, schools, sports teams, and universities in more than 20 countries to support their efforts in building cultures, teams, leaders, employees, and people of character. In our work, we have seen people and companies transformed by focusing on character. In fact, we’ve seen under-performing teams become high performing teams when they focus on character. Likewise, we’ve seen struggling companies become thriving companies when they made character the number one priority for the way they do business. Companies that thrive focus not only on developing the character and competence of their people, they also have a system to hire people with character.
We have to think about character in terms of qualities that a person can learn and build. Most people don’t know how to define what character is, much less be able to measure the level of character. So let’s define character and look at a few ways we can teach character.
Character is our inward values that determine outward actions. In essence, our level of character is derived from our behaviors that are based on what we value.
At Strata Leadership, we use 49 character traits to help us identify character. This is important because it does no good for a person to tell another person to “have more character.” Character must be defined by the qualities that represent it. Once they are defined, we can then move to understanding the qualities by teaching how they are best displayed.
For instance, if you have an employee who continues to show up late to his shift at a restaurant, it would not be a good idea to say, “You are showing poor character. Show up on time tomorrow.” The employee is likely to rebel against this feedback and resent the fact that you have called his/her character into question just for being a little late.
In this scenario we encourage leaders to take a different approach and say something like, “You are struggling with the character quality of Punctuality. I need for you to be punctual every day. Punctuality reflects your character and is showing respect for others by doing the right thing at the right time.”
You see, defining the character quality and using it in a coaching conversation creates a teachable moment. It is not uncommon to find people who want to be a person of character, not understand certain qualities that determine character. This is especially true of young adults who may have had poor teaching or poor role models.
Some other character qualities that can be taught on the job include Alertness, Boldness, Decisiveness, Deference, Dependability, Endurance, Enthusiasm, Flexibility, Gratefulness, Humility, Initiative, Loyalty, Orderliness, Patience, Persuasiveness, Responsibility, Self-Control, Thoroughness, Tolerance.
When we work with leaders and organizations that want to create a culture of character, we encourage them to focus on four things.
1. Identify It – What character qualities are most Important to the organization. List them, talk about them.
2. Define It – Tell people what they mean, why they are important, and how they are displayed at work.
3. Recognize It – Reward and recognize people publicly who are displaying them. Tell others the story. Celebrate it.
4. Standardize It – Hold people accountable for it. Make it the standard operating behavior for how you do business the right way.
So the answer is a resounding YES! Character can be taught. And imagine how character, if continually taught and recognized, could change people, teams, companies, communities, and the world.