During this election season, pundits, pastors, as well as politicians have spoken often about the character of our nation. Last month in The Atlantic, David Brooks wrote about cultivating moral character in the midst of collapsing trust, and more recently Pastor John Piper wrote about the importance of leaders as influencers, observing that the calling of a leader is to “take the lead in giving shape to the character of your people.”
It’s hard to dispute the importance of character in America as it is so ingrained in the narrative of our country. As a young man, Benjamin Franklin famously practiced 13 virtues to cultivate his character. While his list is not earth-shattering (who can argue against moderation, cleanliness, humility, and sincerity among others), it speaks to the importance of character in our national psyche that this aspect of Franklin’s life has been so often remembered for over 250 years. It’s no surprise then that the study of character spans multiple academic fields including education, English literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, theology and my own field of psychology. But because we all agree that character is important, we bring different understandings to the construct. Just because academicians have carefully shaped constructs associated with character does not mean that people in general have a common understanding. Thus, non-academics seem to use character as a shorthand to describe anything that is good within us and across us. Depending on your perspective, character is a personal disposition, a relational compact, or a characteristic that describes a community, culture or country. The usefulness of discussing character in a national dialogue can be crushed by the weight of its own malleability. How do people understand what it means to be a person of character?
As an Industrial / Organizational Psychologist, I have been especially interested in how people understand character in the workplace. With my colleague J. Lee Whittington and graduate student Esther Hayman,1 we asked MBA students who were working full-time to tell us what they saw as the characteristics of someone with good character and what were the characteristics of someone with bad character. We collected several hundred responses and then sorted them into clusters. Not surprising, honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, sincerity, generosity, and competence were among the top clusters. On the negative side, workers described bad character in terms of dishonesty, meanness, disloyalty, selfishness, and inconsistency.
Prior to this study, I was fond of repeating the well-known quote attributed to D.L. Moody that “character is what you are in the dark.” My thinking was that character should be so fixed that we would act in a consistent manner even without the accolades or threats of others. But in asking people their own thoughts on character something else jumped out. For our respondents, character was tied to the social fabric of their workplace. There is an other-orientation to good character that makes work-life relational, consistent, and predictable. An honest person is honest to others. To be trustworthy means that others can count on you. Being a person of integrity signifies that others know your habits so well that your responses to future situations are predictable. Whereas for bad character, its self-centeredness and unpredictability fosters chaos, shreds relationships and at best, creates a transaction-oriented workplace.
In any workplace there are two types of labor. First is the labor associated with getting work done. But there is also emotional / relational labor that is necessary for people to work together. This second labor is woven into every aspect of a job and character is its warp and weft. In healthy workplaces the consistency of character fosters positive emotional / relational labor, improving both work outcomes and the flourishing of employees. In toxic workplaces the undue burdens caused by unpredictable character increseas the cost of emotional / relational labor. Employees practicing bad charcter is like catching grit in gears; slowing down work, worsening outcomes, and wearing people out.
Character, then, is best understood as a social construct and building blocks for flourishing communities. Morality in isolation is merely a warm-up for how we act toward others. While Benjamin Franklin’s practice of temperance and tranquility has its place, Adam Smith’s primary virtues of prudence, justice and benevolence, found in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), have greater importance as they are necessary to show kindness, compassion, and tolerance toward others. There is a reciprocity between self and community in shaping the character of each. Baroness Philippa Stroud, the Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute, reflects this intertwining of individual and communal character by noting that institutions are only as healthy and strong and full of virtue as those leading and inhabiting them. Brooks echoes this in his Atlantic piece when he writes about social trust as the “measure of the moral quality of a society—of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good.”
After our research participants provided their views on the characteristics of character, we asked them to complete two more questions. First, we asked them to think of a trustworthy person and a non-trustworthy person that they knew personally. Then we asked them to describe how they came to those conclusions. We were interested to know the time frame for developing trust and mistrust. In most of the examples, trustworthiness was inherent to the individual, reflecting long-term observations. On the other hand, examples of mistrust were usually a single instance. Our study echoes much of what has been found about trusting relationships in organizations; it takes time to build and a moment to break.
It appears that Americans believe that much trust has been broken. The 2019 Pew Research Center’s report on Americans’ declining trust found that two-thirds of their national sample believe that Americans’ trust in each other has been shrinking. If that wasn’t abysmal enough, 75% responded that Americans’ trust in the federal government has been shrinking.
If we believe that the character of our nation is at stake, then there is no other panacea to build back trust than through the consistent practice of character in community over time. Brooks writes:
Social trust is built within the nitty-gritty work of organizational life: going to meetings, driving people places, planning events, sitting with the ailing, rejoicing with the joyous, showing up for the unfortunate. Over the past 60 years, we have given up on the Rotary Club and the American Legion and other civic organizations and replaced them with Twitter and Instagram. Ultimately, our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations.
If Brooks is correct that our ability to rebuild trust depends on our ability to join and stick to organizations then what does that mean for Christians? As professors, how will we influence student character? As colleagues, how will we model integrity and trustworthiness? As administrators and leaders, how will we shape the emotional / relational health of our churches and institutions?
I am writing this on the eve of the election, knowing that it will be published sometime soon afterwards. Like many of you, I don’t see the election as an end point in this tumultuous year. I see it as a reckoning requiring lament, repentance, and action. I see it as a call to character.