The Cost of Losing Common Decency at Work with Colleen Doyle Bryant

Reading Time: 14 Minutes

In this episode with Colleen Doyle Bryant we discuss common decency in the workplace.

Takeaways We Learned from Colleen…

Leaders need moral compass.

Leaders must have their own guiding principles or moral compass that guides how they think through what’s right and what’s wrong.

Moral compass vs. personal values.

Personal values are things that you value in the way that you go about living, while moral values are based on core human ways of behaving that we all need to be able to work well together.

4 core ways to behave.

The four core ways that people need to know: respect, honesty, responsibility, and fairness.

Foundation of common decency.

Companies need to have a foundation in place of common decency values before they talk about corporate values.

Repercussions of toxic workplace.

A toxic workplace can cause people to leave companies.

Alignment with company’s values.

Individuals can decide whether their personal values align with a company’s shared values by asking questions.

Process for shared values.

Organizations need to have a clear process to identify shared values, and they should be demonstrated and honored in the workplace.

Compassion and transparency.

These are common values in organizations, but they look different in different industries and settings.

Enforcement and accountability.

Organizations should hold themselves accountable when they don’t live up to their values.

Unique challenge for family business.

Clear communication is important to align family and corporate values.

About Colleen Doyle Bryant

Colleen is the author of five books and more than 50 learning resources about character and values. Her latest book, Rooted in Decency, looks at the decline in common decency in society and ways that we can build more trust and cooperation. Colleen’s Talking with Trees series for elementary students and Truth Be Told Quotes series for teens are used in curriculums around the world with more than 100,000 of her good values resources downloaded each year. Colleen has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Duke University.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive business coach Allison Dunn. Our guest today is Colleen Doyle Brant. She is the author of five books in more than 50 learning resources about character and values. Her latest book Rooted in Decency, looks at the decline in common decency in society and ways that we can build more trust and more cooperation. Colleen, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Colleen: Thank you for having me on the show.

Allison: My pleasure. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners today?


I would say the number one tip for leaders is that they need to know what their own guiding principles are what, what is the moral compass that guides how you think through what’s right, and what’s wrong?

And not just what they are. But how would you explain that to somebody else, I think today, this is really important, because we’re seeing, we’re seeing the type of leadership change, it’s not so much this tops down, going to tell people what to do, like it used to be. Now it’s empowering your people to go make decisions on their own. And so as a leader, if you can’t explain how you would think through a complex issue, then it’s going to be pretty hard to empower them to think the way you would want them to when you’re not there to guide them.

Allison: You use the terminology, which I love to refer to a lot, which is like a moral compass or a compass of an organization. And I think that some companies are really good at being able to say, you know, this is the moral compass we operate on, what are some ways that you would suggest that people can connect the moral compass that they have two things that they’re doing inside of an organization, or within the work within the workplace?

Colleen: I think the first thing we need to do is clarify, what do we mean by a moral compass? Because we have a lot of different ways we talk about values today, we talked about personal values, corporate values, and human values. And there’s a difference between them. And right now, actually, one of the really popular things to do are these personal values tests out on the internet, and people are looking for this they want, they want to know, what are the core values that guide me, how do I make decisions, and they go out, and they look for these personal values, tests that say things like pick any five of these words that that resonate with you. And it’s a little misleading.

A moral compass is not the same thing as your personal values. Personal values are things that you value having in your life, they’re things you value in the way that you go about living. Moral values are based on these core human ways of behaving, that we all need to be able to work well together.

So you can have corporate values, and you can have personal values, that’s cool. But they need to be built on top of a foundation of these core human values, the moral compass that I talked about in the book rooted in decency, because these are the expectations that all human beings have for how we form relationships with people to be able to trust to be able to cooperate and to be able to work toward shared goals. And so what is a leader do? Well, a leader brings people together to form relationships based interests so they can cooperate toward shared goals. So I would say the first thing to do is start with understanding what are these four core ways that people need to behave so that they can work productively together?

Allison: And an organization can pick and choose what those core ways are? Correct?

Colleen: Well, they can pick and choose what their corporate values are that sit on top of the human values, okay? But everything has to start with this foundation, because it’s how societies run. It’s how corporations run. It’s how teams run. So start with the basics.

One of the interesting things that that has happened recently is when you look at why people are leaving companies, the first six months of the great attrition, the leading cause of people leaving companies is a toxic workplace. It was 10 times more powerful in predicting people leaving than compensation was.

And when you look at what are the ways people define a toxic workplace, they are respect, honesty, responsibility and fairness. Those are really core common decency sorts of values. And if people are leaving work on that sort of scale, because As they’re not seeing people behave with these core values, that says to me that a corporation any company really needs to get to a back to the basics approach to make sure that before they’re talking about corporate values, like innovation and customer centric, that they’ve got that foundation in place, and that people know how to treat each other and treat their customers decently.

Allison: What are a few of the ways that an individual can decide whether the their personal values aligned with a company’s shared values?

Colleen: Well, personal values have a lot to do with the ways you like to interact in life. So it might be things like, you might have moral values in there, like you might value honesty and respect for people, compassion and responsibility. But personal values also tend to include things like, you know, do I like to I like autonomy? Or do I like structure? Do I like creativity? Or do I like consistency? Things like that. So it’s more like a style thing for personal values. But when we’re talking about do my values align with a company? The first thing is, is it a decent company? Are they honest? Are they respectful? are they responsible? Are they compassionate? Once that’s in place, then you can start considering the style issues like well, will I have autonomy? Will it be a creative role? You know, will I find this work interesting.

It’s kind of a layering approach, make sure you got the basics, and they’re a decent place to work. And then think about whether it suits the style with which you like to work.

Allison: Thank you. Your book, Rooted in Decency? is making the connection between employee retention and its connection to the cost of losing common decency at work. Can you explain that?

Colleen: Yeah. So let me clarify maybe what the values are for common decency, right. So this comes from a long history of humans, realizing that they can accomplish more and have more security and wellbeing when they work with other people. And they have figured out before, there were laws before their religions, like way back in time, there were these core ways that we figured out we work well together. And that is, with honesty, we need to be truthful with ourselves about ourselves. We need to represent ourselves honestly, with other people and have honest dealings with them.

The second one is about respect, we need to have respect for ourselves and the way we treat ourselves. But we also need to treat other people in the way that we’d like to be treated.

And the third is responsibility. One that we have responsibility for ourselves on our own development and doing the jobs, the responsibilities, the duties that we have in life, and managing that give and take with other people. So we’re always in a company, there’s always a given a take between a leader and the employees between the company and the employees. And are we doing that fairly. And then, you know, are we holding each other accountable. And then finally, there’s compassion, which has to do with the fact that life is hard. And we help each other by having the courage and the tenacity and the support through the hard times. And we celebrate the good times, we share in the joys together.

So truth, respect, responsibility, compassion, that is, is foundational for how people will feel positive, they’ll feel like they want to be at a company, they will be more likely to feel like they can trust their fellow employees. What we see in terms of employee retention, employee productivity is when people are in an environment with people they trust with people they want to cooperate with, they’re much more productive, they’re much more likely to stay in their jobs. And it’s also good for things like mental well being. So really, there’s like, there’s all these wonderful benefits in terms of maintaining a positive work environment, that also helps you maintain the bottom line.

Allison: I’ve been pretty fortunate to work in organizations where I felt like there’s a baseline, you know, have the respect, the honesty, the responsibility, all of the core things that you’re talking about. So I’m, I think, fortunate in that respect. What if someone finds themselves in an organization that doesn’t necessarily have all of those in line for them? How does one handle that?

Colleen: What can you do? Wow, that’s a that is a really good question. I think there are people who are in a leadership role who have perhaps a responsibility then to bring attention to it. And this comes a bit back to the At that we started with at the beginning is how do you explain it? How do you articulate to the rest of a management team, when you feel like there’s a mismatch? When you say, Hey, we’re a company that says we value respect, but look at how these people are being treated, you know, an example might be, we say we value a positive work, environment and respect.

But when a customer treats an employee badly, we don’t do anything about it. Great example, you know, we say we value our staff, but there’s this boss over there, who regularly rates his employees and makes them feel terrible. You know, why are we not holding him accountable? Why are we not acting with responsibility toward that situation? And when we can articulate it in those terms, where we’re tying things together with our with all our moral values? Hey, are we being honest with ourselves about how we’re handling the situation? Are we doing this with respect for all the people that are involved? Are we being responsible to our employees and to the company and to our customers? Or do we have conflicts in there when we’re being compassionate? Or are we looking at the right way to solve the problem that doesn’t actually do more harm than good? When we can explain things in those terms, I think it helps people understand more, and recognize that there’s a problem, and then find a path to a solution. That’s a lot more effective than maybe come in and being this is wrong. This is so wrong. How can you be doing this? Right? That doesn’t really help people come with a solution, it really puts them more on the defensive. So use some of those shared value terms. It is very common to humans and human decency, truth, respect, responsibility, compassion, put it in those terms, and it resonates with us.

Allison: Okay, thank you. Can we talk about how corporate values are not optional? And why personal values are secondary in the setting that we enter into inside of our organization?

Colleen: Yeah, so we’re going to assume we all have the foundation, right, we’re going to assume that everybody is coming from a place of core decency and integrity. On top of that, a corporation is going to add a layer of values, that helps focus people in a direction. So they’re going to say, let’s say, for instance, in our corporation, we value innovation, and customer centric activities. So when you are thinking about your priorities, when you’re planning your work, focus in that direction, and it gets people you know, just marching in one way and having a frame of reference when they’re thinking about what to do.

Let’s say your employees have personal values, they have things that are important to them in their lives. Well, if those things conflict with your corporate values, that’s going to be a problem.

You know, there’s like this, there’s commonalities, you don’t get to skip over the foundation. And you don’t get to skip over the corporate, you have to figure out how your personal values work with those other things, but they don’t get to Trump them. They don’t get to just eliminate them, because it’s what you what you personally prefer.

Allison: So let’s say that we have organizations like people listening today who have people on the team, their teams that that circumstances happening, reverse to saying if you see leadership doing that, and it’s, you know, not concurrent, how do we how do we deal with team members that necessarily aren’t necessarily in alignment with the corporate values? And it seems to be trumping?

Colleen: Yeah. Well, there’s this great concept called the public justification. Yeah. So what this means is that in our personal lives, we can and by the way, this comes from John Rawls, he’s one of the most notable political philosophers of modern times. And he said, around your kitchen table, you can think whatever you want, you can have whatever opinion you want about anything. But when we’re in a public space, where we’re working with other people, and we need to cooperate and compromise, then our justifications need to come from shared values. They need to come from shared ideas about the way things are in the way things should work. So if you are in a corporation by nature of being in that corporation, you’re agreeing with the ground rules, and the priorities for that corporation.

By being part of humanity, you are agreeing to these core human values that say we should act with integrity and decency toward each other.

Go home to your kitchen table and do what you want. But in public in those situations, if you disagree, and your personal value is in conflict with those shared values, you need to be able to explain in terms of what we all agree on.

So an example might be instead of saying, Well, this is this is my belief, and this is just who I am. And I need to go with my conscience. Instead, you would need to say something like, well, here’s why I think there’s harm being caused in a situation. Here’s why I think it’s not fair. Or here’s why, here’s how I think that it’s a matter of disrespect. Here’s how it violates a corporate value. By relating it to those things that we have agreed upon by the nature of being in this relationship in the corporation, then you have a reasonable argument. It can’t just be well, this is how I feel.

Allison: Do you feel that organizations have a good process to identify what shared values they agree to all? As a group by? Is there a good process for that?

Colleen: Yeah. There’s, you know, I don’t think we can blanket say that all corporations do some do a better job of it than others. But I think regardless, the ones who do it well, they make an effort to make clear what their values are. They demonstrate how they work in that company and in that industry. Okay, so as an example, you can say, well, we value compassion. Okay, well, if you’re in, say, a hospital setting, compassion looks different than when you’re, say, a Wall Street investment banker.

Or, let’s say, transparency, that’s a big one. Today, we believe in transparency, we believe in absolute truth. Do you really? Do you expect employees to walk into a meeting and give their co workers the unvarnished truth? That was the worst presentation I’ve ever seen? No, you really don’t. So it helps people to have more examples, what is this look like, in our work day. And then you have to actually honor them. And when you’re not, that creates a sense of resentment, and hypocrisy. So really, if you’re, if you’re going to say these things matter, and this is what we believe and how it should work, well, then you have to enforce it, then accountability and that enforcement aspect of responsibility has to be there.

Allison: An interesting shared value, and I’m going to just disclose I come from a family business. So I’m going to use the word family in a way that really does mean a family business. So if a company or an organization was created from a family business, and they say that they share the value of what family means, I’ve seen a lot of challenges around that. Have you encountered that as well as a shared value? Run that one specific one?

Colleen: Yeah, so here’s, here’s the, the brilliant way I kind of I kind of put this together is that we tend to see ourselves in our bubble of our needs and wants in our existence. But we actually don’t exist just in our little bubble by ourselves, we lit we exist within a series of concentric bubbles. So there’s the bubble just outside of us, that is probably our family and our close friends. And the expectations and the give and take in that relationship is based on how close that relationship is.

There’s another bubble beyond that, that is coworkers, maybe neighbors, maybe community, and the expectations in those relationships is a little different. The give and take is a little different, because they’re a little bit further away. And then beyond that, you have country and you have humanity. And everything that we do is based on what the right amount of give and take is what are the boundaries? What are the expectations for those relationships?

Well, family relationships, true family relationships have different standards. They have different expectations, different boundaries, different give and take, then that next bubble out, which is coworkers.

And it’s not really reasonable to expect coworkers to treat people like family. Because it’s a lot. You know, that family is a special thing and you do more and you give more and you get more than you do from that bubble that’s a little further away and it’s not really fair to people. It’s not really realistic to expect people to blur those lines and act as if people Their family when they’re not.

Allison: Thank you. I feel like that is a valuable thing for many of the listeners that, you know, are struggling with that blurred circle between the two.

Colleen: By the way, one extra thought on that is, if you’re in a family business with family, and people who aren’t family, you’re probably wise to make sure that the way you’re handling those relationships are different in that even your family member at work is a different relationship than your family member at home.

Allison: And then they’re the same person. So how you treat them at home and how you treat them at work can be different. It should be different. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I appreciate that. We’re talking about the moral compass and then blending that with like workplace hierarchies. Why do managers and leaders need to hold themselves accountable to the same things that they’re expecting others to lead by?

Colleen: I would argue they not only need to hold themselves to at least an equal standard, but probably even a better standard. And that’s because so we talked about this idea that human beings, we have evolved to know which behaviors are good for our wellbeing, and which behaviors help a group to work well together. So we look to our leaders to set a tone. And we are entrusting our leaders with part of our wellbeing.

If we know that that truth, respect, responsibility, compassion are good for our ability to work with other people form those relationships, establish that trust, cooperate for shared values, shared goals, then we’re going to want our leaders to make sure everybody else is going to behave that way. They’re setting a tone for it.

But we also we want them to exemplify that behavior. Because we’re trusting them. We’re trusting them with part of our wellbeing. And if they can even behave that way themselves, why would we trust them? And why would we think they could inspire other people to behave in that way? Okay.

Allison: Some of your work has been focused around like this newest book is based in the workplace, and I just don’t want to lose the opportunity to share that you also have work that is for school system, correct for youth, children.

Colleen: That’s true. I should clarify. The latest book is more about general society, General life. Now. It’s not workplace specific, but certainly a lot of it applies to workplace situations. But yes, I actually started writing about morals and values over a decade ago for children and for teens. And so my books and teaching resources were used and curriculums around the world to help kids learn about being respectful and responsible and caring, for instance.

Allison: I love that. Colleen, what is the best way for people to find follow you and get some of your resources?

Colleen: Well, if you got on Instagram, I’m Colleen Doyle Bryant, you can also go to my website, And the latest book, which is most applicable to work situations is rooted in

Allison: Fantastic. Colleen, thank you so much for joining us here today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Colleen: Thank you so much.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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