What Organizational Virtuousness Is — and Why You Want It

November 12, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Virtuousness is typically something we think of as old fashioned–like this Allegory of Virtue and Riches by Godfried Schalcken.

Virtue isn’t really something people talk much about these days.  It tends to call to mind pictures of pious saints or innocent maids all-in-a-row.

So imagine my surprise while I was researching our Nov 19th webinar on the Science of Gratitude, and the topic of “company virtuousness” kept cropping up.  Never one to resist a word challenge, I started to dig a little deeper into this idea of company virtuousness, and what exactly the big deal is.

Because, let’s face it… virtuousness is something of an old-fashioned term. It used to just mean “strong,” “moral” or “excellent.” It was a favorite of writers in the Enlightenment. But sometime during the Victorian era, virtue sort of got co-opted and turned into something only people “holier than thou” had. And it fell out of fashion. Way out of fashion.

It turns out, though, that the idea of virtuousness has been living a secret underground life in organizational psychology. What is it, exactly? Here, in part, is how researchers at University of Michigan and Case Western define it, in their study of organizational virtuousness and performance:

Virtuousness:   What individuals and organizations aspire to be when they are at their very best. States of virtuousness are uniquely human, and they represent conditions of flourishing, ennoblement, and vitality.

So why should virtuousness matter to you?

Well, it turns out, virtuousness is also a catch all for things like “hope, gratitude, wisdom, forgiveness, compassion, (and) resilience”—basically good citizenship behavior with a dash of moral goodness and striving for social betterment. And in fact, other researchers have found a direct correlation between organizational virtuousness and citizenship behavior.

It can help in one of two ways:

Virtuous Companies Do Good
In the more modern sense of the word virtuous, we think of virtuous companies as those that act in the interest of the greater good of humanity or the environment etc. That’s important because employees are increasingly attracted to meaning in their work and companies that serve a greater good.

Virtuous Companies Help Employees Flourish
But the other way—the older sense of the word— is equally important. Because in that 2004 study, researchers showed that virtuousness and organizational performance are related. When people flourish and aspire to be their best—those organizations become far more resilient to trauma. And in virtuous companies, performance does not deteriorate as much during downsizing. Innovation, customer retention, employee turnover, quality, and profitability have also been positively associated with virtuousness.

This works because virtuousness in organizations produces two effects:

  1. an amplifying function that creates self-reinforcing upward spirals
  2. a buffering function that strengthens and protects organizations from traumas such as downsizing.

If all this has inspired you to help your company and employees become more virtuous, here are a few ideas of places to concentrate:

  • Give work more purpose and meaning
  • Focus on helping people to flourish, develop and grow their skills
  • Encourage and reward strength, self-control and resilience
  • Offer people opportunities to exercise gratitude

You don’t have to call it virtuousness, though. That can be our little secret. =)

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