Money, it is said, makes the world go round and the individuals who generate pounds, dollars and yuan are rarely out of the news.
The world’s largest economy, the United States, is now run by a veteran businessman rather than a career politician. The elevation of billionaire Donald Trump to the Oval Office has ensured business, and “the art of the deal,” is at the forefront of political and popular discourse.
Trump’s business empire, conduct and character have inevitably come under the microscope. Whatever you might think of the star of “The Apprentice,” the balance sheet suggests he is a hugely successful businessman, Forbes magazine putting the entrepreneur’s net worth at $3.5 billion (£2.8 billion).
By anyone’s standards, the balance sheet is a fair indicator of commercial acumen although clearly it is not the only one. But what are the character strengths that men and women value most highly for competing on the trading floor, and in the office and the boardroom – and do they match the traits that individuals perceive in their own characters?
In an era of regularly reported corporate scandals, is honesty still valued in the business world – and is there a place for love?
Research by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues for its Virtuous Character in Business and Finance project has produced some interesting findings with regard to these questions and throws new light on the nature of professional conduct and behaviour.
The Business and Finance project is one of three looking at the ethics of professionals, running alongside separate examinations of character and virtues among soldiers and nurses. It is looking at three specific business groups and hopes to discover how virtue ethics can help professionals to navigate the ethical dilemmas thrown up by their everyday work.
A total of 13 business schools agreed to take part in the project and researchers have been exploring the attitudes of first-year undergraduates as well as final-year students. The project’s third cohort comprises business school alumni with at least five years’ professional experience.
All the groups were asked to complete a survey and a smaller number have been taking part in semi-structured interviews.
Using the template established by the Via Institute on Character, nearly 800 respondents were asked to choose six character strengths that best describe the sort of person they are. Across the different career stage groups, the top traits (in order of importance) were: honesty, fairness, teamwork, humour, kindness and leadership.
The character traits deemed to be the least important were zest, spirituality, and appreciation of beauty. Another low ranked trait was prudence, which was identified by just 1% of first-year business school students.
Small gender difference also emerged – so women were more likely to identify with kindness while men were more likely to select teamwork.
Established business and finance professionals, some of whom have more than 20 years’ experience, rated hope and love low on the list, being reported by just 1% of respondents. The top attributes for the career-established group (five years’ experience) was fairness followed by honesty.
For a different perspective, the same people were asked to identify the character strengths of the “ideal” finance and business professional. There was more broad agreement than with the exercise involving self-reflection with all three groups highlighting the same five “go to” traits: leadership, judgment, teamwork, honesty and fairness.
For the sixth trait, first-year students identified creativity; final-year undergraduates picked perseverance; and employed professionals reported perspective.
Leadership was the most important character strength for the ideal business executive, according to both sets of students (13%). The Number One trait for established professionals was honesty (13%).
Again, there were gender differences: women favoured social intelligence while men were more likely to report judgment as being important for the ideal professional.
The least popular character strength was spirituality – registering virtually 0% in the sample – followed by love, forgiveness, zest and hope. Modesty and appreciation of beauty also fared badly when people were asked about the ideal professional.
Furthermore, respondents may have believed humour is a key character strength in their own self-assessment (it was the fourth most important across the three groups), the ability to “have a laugh” is relatively insignificant when the same people were asked about the ideal business professional, with 1% to 2% highlighting it as an important trait.
The survey highlights a clear disparity between personal, self-reflection on character strengths and notions of the “ideal,” which is always the case. Perhaps there are steps that can be taken to constructively bridge this gap.
We hope that our research will offer practical suggestions to improve education and training in British business schools and hopefully this will help to address the importance the ethics and increase attention in this vital area.
Dr Yan Huo
Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues