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Our Loss of Wisdom

Do you ever feel that sticking to the rules can sometimes get in the way of what you think is the ‘right thing’ to do in a situation? Of course rules are important part of a functioning society – from playing sport, to driving on our roads and performing our jobs – they pull us together and give us clear understandings of what to expect in our everyday lives. But is there a danger in relying too heavily on rules?

 Professor Barry Schwartz from Swarthmore College suggests that when things go wrong, as inevitably they can do, we reach for two tools to try to fix them – rules and incentives.

While this can be helpful in the short run, ultimately an over reliance on rules can result in a blanket approach to situations, that sometimes prevent us from responding in the right way to specific circumstances. And when we depend too much on incentives to motivate people, we set up a system that encourages self-interest over a moral will to do the right thing. Barry argues that this engages us in a war on our wisdom.

Aristotle said: “practical wisdom is the combination of moral will and moral skill.” A wise person according to Barry is like an accomplished jazz musician – using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand.

Watch his Ted Talk to learn what it takes to be a morally wise person, and how you can find ways to generate more wisdom in your workplace.

What Will You Learn?

  • [1:51] When hospital janitors believe that kindness, care and empathy are an essential part of their job, it actually improves the quality of patient care and enables hospitals to run well. And yet their job description contains not one word about other people.
  • [3:33] A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule and knows how to improvise. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving, try new things, occasionally fail, learn from your failures, and be mentored by wise teachers.
  • [4:57] You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise. But without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.
  • [7:20] While rules and incentives may fix things in the short run, they create a downward spiral that makes them worse in the long run. Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprives us of the opportunity to learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.
  • [14:21] Be inspired by moral exemplars. Acknowledge them. Celebrate them.
  • [16:55] We should encourage and nurture both moral skill and moral will. Even the wisest and most well-meaning people will give up if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work.
  • [19:12] People want to be allowed to be virtuous. And the virtue we need above all others is practical wisdom, because it’s what allows other virtues – such as honesty, kindness, courage – to be displayed at the right time and in the right way.

What Can You Try?

  • Be inspired –find examples of morally exemplary work in organizations. Visit the Aim2Flourish website to read about organizations all around the world that are doing morally good things such as ending poverty, fostering peace and justice, and increasing economic prosperity while contributing to a healthy world and human wellbeing.
  • Celebrate everyday heroes – can you identify those around you who consistently go beyond their job description and expectations to do the right thing, in the right way for the right reasons? It might be showing that extra care and attention to customers, helping people find the right service, or challenging unjust work practices. Find ways to acknowledge and celebrate their efforts.
  • Know Your Why – boost your ‘moral will’ by knowing the purpose and meaning in your job. Research has found great leaders regard their job as a calling and understand why it really matters. While many of us are know what we need to do and how we’ll go about it we don’t always have a clear idea of the ‘why’. Simon Sinek, best-selling author of Start With Why suggests one of the simplest ways to discover your why is to try and complete this sentence: Everything I do is to _______ so that ________.  Play with ideas for a while until you find the calling that feels right for you, and gives you the right reasons for what you do each day.

Want More?

Grab a copy of Barry’s book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way To Do The Right Thing

Find out more about virtuous organizations in my Video Review of a Ted Talk by David Cooperrider

Hear more about the benefits of virtuous organizations in my interview with Kim Cameron

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