If you had to choose to focus on either developing skills or developing character, which would you choose? I know it’s a forced choice, but which one is more important? Think about who you would prefer to work with. Would you prefer to work with someone who has strength of character, or someone who is very skilled?
As for me, I choose character. Character tells me that someone will make principled decisions in times of plenty and times of stress. Character connects to living one’s values in ways that strengthen the human community. When someone has strength of character, I trust them. Do we need skill development? Of course. We all want to be highly skilled, and to work with highly skilled people. Highly skilled people do amazing things. However, skills are like tools in the hands of a builder. The intent of the builder makes all the difference in the wielding of the tools. Just as a builder can use a hammer to build or destroy, a person who is a highly skilled communicator may apply their skills to education or manipulation. Character makes the difference.
Prioritize Character Development Personally and Organizationally
So how do we develop character, both personally and in our organizations?
Developing character starts with focussing in on our values. We need to know how we would like to live, and how we would like to be experienced in the world. Our organizations need to answer something similar. Organizations must know what values drive their behaviour, and how they would like to be experienced in the world.
Individual Character Development
From an individual perspective, character development begins by surrounding ourselves with people whose values and behaviour we admire. It means connecting with people whom we trust to hold up a mirror by which we can see ourselves more clearly. It means intentionally focussing on how our behaviour lines up against how we wish to be.
We know that we are developing our character when our actions consistently support ourselves and others, no matter the degree of difficulty in our circumstances. The quality of our relationships over time will tell us much about the quality of our own character.
Organizational Character Development
Character development for an organization is intimately connected to the character of the individuals who work there. Where I work, we believe that character is so important that we prioritize it in our hiring process. We want to know what kind of person you are. To us, this is more important than what you have learned to do. When faced with a difficult decision, we want to know if you will do the right thing by our values and beliefs as a company. To that end, we pose questions to interviewees that focus on dilemmas that they have faced in real life, as well as hypothetical ones we may face as a company. We want to know how people have responded, and how they think they would respond. We want to know if a candidate will live our values.
On a day to day basis, we measure our actions and decisions against the values we have identified as an organization. When someone faces a real dilemma with a client, we focus on what we believe would be the right thing to do for the client, not how can we resolve the situation cheaply or efficiently. We ask ourselves how we would like to be treated, and how we believe a client would like to be treated. These are character questions because they draw us to our better impulses, and our values.
Ultimately, developing character means developing a capacity to make consistent decisions that are based on our values. It means becoming a person, or an organization, that is trustworthy.
While developing character should be our number one priority, developing our skills should be a strong second.
We humans want to get better at things. As discussed in his excellent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink shows how mastery over our skills drives personal satisfaction and behaviour. Seeing improvement in our skills satisfies us.
Whereas our character relates to whether people will want to work with us, getting better at what we do drives our ability to compete in the world, to successfully excel at our jobs, and offer products and services that people actually want.
Skill development works most effectively in areas where we have aptitude and interest. Interest drives our engagement with a subject while aptitude makes it easier and more pleasurable to learn.
Here are seven ways to develop skills at work:
1. Ask for time to develop or learn skills. Show your supervisor how this relates to your work.
2. Attend an in-person workshop. If your supervisor has provided you time, perhaps you can make the case for the organization to finance the course.
3. Utilize free or inexpensive online courses. Consider an organizational subscription to your favorite provider of online learning.
4. Look up “how to” videos on the internet.
5. Find a colleague who you want to learn from, or with, and meet regularly to sharpen each other’s skills.
6. Sacrifice some office time for professional development time.
When it comes to development, we must focus on both character and skills. When we do this, we become the types of people and organizations that others trust, and that excel in our chosen areas.
This blog is a sample from an upcoming book by ACHIEVE Publishing. The book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We hope you participate in the short survey – we would love to hear your input.