When Virtue Becomes Vice
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
By Mary Loftus published September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
After being shot at close range by saloonkeeper John Schrank, a serious fan of term limits, Theodore Roosevelt continued with his scheduled campaign speech, the bullet still lodged in his chest. "It takes more than that to bring down a Bull Moose," he said, speaking for an hour before consenting to medical treatment.
Self-confidence, resilience, and fearlessness produce bold leaders who perform well on the job, whether as presidents, CEOs, or war heroes. But the very same virtues are also just a few degrees from antisocial behaviors with decidedly negative consequences. Lack awareness of your own fears and limitations and it's easy to become reckless, impulsive, and callous, ignoring other people's fears and limitations as well.
"Some traits may be like a double-edged sword," says psychologist Scott Lilienfeld, developer of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory and an Emory University professor. "Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis, or to reckless criminality and violence," he reports in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In his personality assessments of 42 presidents, Teddy Roosevelt ranked highest in fearless dominance.
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
In the newest view of personality, our traits are no longer seen as binary—you are either conscientious or you're not—but as dimensional, existing on a continuum. Not only does each characteristic fall on a spectrum, each holds the grain of its own destruction: Organized becomes obsessive. Daring escalates to risky. Modest slips to insecure. Confident turns to arrogant, cautious to anxious, persuasive to domineering, friendly to ingratiating.
The seven deadly sins might very well have started out as ambition, relaxation, awareness of one's good work, righteous anger, a healthy sexuality, and enjoying a good meal. It's all a matter of degree.
In their recently published book, Fear Your Strengths, executive developers Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan say that in their collective 50 years of business consulting and executive coaching, they've seen virtually every virtue taken too far. "We've seen confidence to the point of hubris and humility to the point of diminishing oneself. We've seen vision drift into aimless dreaming and focus narrow down to tunnel vision. Show us a strength, and we'll show you an example where its overuse has compromised performance and probably even derailed a career."
Human nature, social norms, and the culture of the workplace generally pull us toward virtues. But virtues are not always what they seem. Not only can they conceal vices, they are not invariably virtuous. In a world where rapid change is the one constant, all received wisdom, including what is virtuous, must be regularly re-examined. Nothing is a blanket prescription in a highly dynamic universe. Change requires, above all, adaptability, the ability to stretch beyond the status quo, get beyond what you were taught or see beyond what has worked in the past.
Even when, on the surface, they seem to be one of the best things about an individual or organization, deeply held, unquestioned strengths can be destructive, says Jake Breeden, a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education and author of Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues.
Take the Air Force colonel who, for decades, had made sure to greet each recruit personally with a handshake. After he retired, the incoming colonel replaced his greeting with a video, assigning the personal welcome down the ranks to the sergeants, although it caused him to be perceived as colder and more distant than his predecessor. When someone finally summoned the nerve to ask the new colonel about his video greeting, he replied, "I'm giving the sergeants a little bit of sunshine. I get enough as it is."
The new colonel was well aware of the implications of his decision. He didn't do it out of laziness or disregard. By raising the profile of his senior enlisted men, the new C.O. banished an unsustainable cult of personality that depends on a single, charismatic individual. "The beloved C.O. had retired completely unaware of the unintended consequence of what he perceived to be his greatest virtue," Breeden points out.
Sticking to preconceived ideas of the virtues that make a "good parent," "loyal employee," "inspiring boss," "productive workplace," or "loving spouse" may often sell ourselves or others short. What's more, commonly accepted values such as personal involvement, high standards, and meticulous preparation can all backfire. Involving yourself personally in every project and every decision can lead to micromanaging, burnout, and resentment from those under the all-too-constant supervision, whether you're a corporate VP or a hovering mom.
Demanding excellence across the board can shut down creativity and risk-taking and indicate a lack of priorities—everything doesn't have to be done perfectly; some things just need to get done. And too much preparation, especially if done in isolation and without feedback, can delay the final outcome or product without actually improving it. We are prone to "falling in love with a script we've worked hard to prepare, at the expense of being flexible," says Breeden.
This is not a call to immediately give up your best qualities and firmly held values. "It's likely the virtues you hold most closely are there for deep and personal reasons," says Breeden. "The goal is to stay true to yourself while avoiding the ways your unexamined beliefs and automatic behaviors can backfire." Even your most engaging traits can be overused, or trotted out at the wrong time, or go too far in degree.
How do you know when a virtue is wearing out its welcome? Only self-awareness can keep core values in check. Taking personal inventory can lead to a realization of which virtues are constructive and beneficial in your life, and when, and which are actually holding you back, making you miserable, or sabotaging work and relationships. And never assume that a virtue that served you well in the past will always continue to do so.
Excellence—or Paralyzing Perfectionism?
Striving for excellence has its payoffs—good marks, approval, awards, a sense of a job well done. But pursuing excellence across the board reflects rigidity and can lead to perfectionism, an inflexible devotion to high standards, and an inability to set priorities.
Psychologist Simon Sherry and colleagues at Canada's Dalhousie University decided to turn the microscope on their peers by examining levels of perfectionism, conscientiousness, and academic productivity among psychology professors. They found that conscientiousness is associated positively with total publications, but perfectionism is associated negatively with the number of journal publications. It restricts productivity. What's more, the perfectionists' papers tended to have little impact.
"There really is a fine line between striving for excellence and striving excessively for perfection," says Gordon Flett, professor of social sciences and humanities at Toronto's York University and co-developer of the widely used Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. Perfectionism doesn't just impact work performance. It takes a toll on health as well. Perfectionists, Flett says, exhibit high levels of chronic illnesses.
Excellence, meet good enough. The evolution of any organism is more a branching out to see what happens than a streamlined, linear path toward perfection.
To Breeden, the pursuit of excellence is one of those sacred cows that need to be carefully re-examined. Excellence in all matters overlooks the fact that life is often messy. And it fails to discriminate between what is important and what is not. What's more, there's a need to distinguish between process excellence and outcome excellence.
It is much more necessary to seek excellence of outcome than excellence of process. Mistakes (and their corrections) are often the best teachers, and a push for excellence in all things obscures their contribution to success, especially in a world demanding innovation.
For Harvard's Christensen, disruptive innovation isn't restricted to the business world, where flexible start-ups encroach on established firms. It has value in private life, too. In a recent speech, he issued "a call for disruption in parenting. I fear that we have parents who have raised a generation of children who don't have the courage to deal with difficult issues."
If children are never allowed to cope with failure, he says, then "when they reach adulthood and see daunting tasks, they just choose not to address them." When children are allowed to overcome obstacles, experience failure, and persevere, they develop determination. Instead of giving up after a try or two, they will search for ways to succeed with the resources available to them—finding workable if not "perfect" solutions. It's impossible to guarantee children's success or safety, but they can be allowed to discover the traits of resourcefulness and tenacity—values that trump a drive for excellence in many real-world pursuits.
Fairness to Everyone Isn't Fair to Anyone
Who doesn't desire a fair shot, an equal opportunity, and equitable treatment?
We are scorekeepers by instinct. So deep is the need for fairness that when we feel we've been treated unfairly, primitive instincts can compel us to bring others down to the same level. Breeden remembers telling his daughter he was going to miss her birthday due to a rare business opportunity. When she dried her tears, she told him it was OK—as long as he missed her sister's birthday, too. Not much different, he says, from "workers fretting over relative office size, bonus packages, or mentions at the annual meeting."
We want to be treated fairly, and we want to work for people and places that treat others fairly. "Employees seem to have a universal concern for fairness that transcends the self," says Purdue University psychologist Deborah Rupp, who studies organizational justice, the psychological process by which employees come to judge their workplace as fair or unfair. When they witness their employer treating others unfairly, Rupp finds, employees file complaints, warn others, look for alternative employment, and engage in counterproductive work behaviors.
Breeden again makes a distinction between process and outcome. In this case, fairness of process is far more important than fairness of outcome, where every child gets the same treatment or every employee gets one conference a year, a $1,000 bonus, and a 10-foot cubicle. Pursuing fairness of outcome easily creates a nightmare of competing demands. "It's a leader's job to make sure everyone, including herself, has a fair chance," he says. Exceptional workers should be treated exceptionally; it's only fair. Otherwise motivation is extinguished.
Fairness is more than treating employees or children or friends "exactly the same"—it means taking into consideration individual needs and personal motivations. When, as in a family, treatment is more customized to the needs of individual children, everyone feels special—and happy.
Yes, fairness is still an admirable quality. You just have to make sure you're keeping your eye on the right scoreboard.
Purpose: Passion Without Obsession
Passionate people are mesmerizing. They embody purpose and meaning in life and work, and often the two merge seamlessly into their life's work. "The more elusive the boundaries between your work and life, the more successful you probably are in both," reports Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London. He encourages people to find "work-life fusion."
Being passionate about things feels good, too. It boosts energy, stamina, drive. It means you care deeply about something beyond yourself to the point of full immersion, which is likely the only way vaccines are invented, symphonies are written, or middle schools acquire good teachers.
But passion can also crowd out other things of equal importance, place emotion above logic, and lead to burnout. At its darkest, it can turn into obsession, a pursuit that dominates all else and occupies the mind to an alarming degree.
Robert Vallerand, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec, contrasts healthy passion (what Breeden calls "harmonious passion") with obsessive passion. Individuals with harmonious passion, Vallerand says, engage in an activity because they want to. Those with obsessive passion engage in an activity because they feel they must—say, to prove themselves to an overly critical parent or to capture the market before anyone else does.
"Harmonious passion isn't about lowering standards or wimping out," Breeden says. It's about finding a level of passion that is sustainable.
The Cost of Being Agreeable
Agreeable people, in the nomenclature of personality psychology, are softhearted, trusting, and helpful. They tend to be modest and altruistic, willing to compromise, generous in spirit. Happiness and optimism come easily to them, even when circumstances are rough.
They don't make waves very often. And therein lies the problem. There are times when everyone would be better off if they did.
Conflict is inevitable in work and life. There will be honest disagreements, actions taken that do not please everyone, hard decisions to be defended, territorial claims to be held. Assertiveness is a necessary trait, and it is often lacking in people who are overly accommodating, making them easy prey for those who would take advantage of another's trust or generosity. If you can't say no, offer constructive criticism, or stand firm in your decisions, you won't be an effective worker, supervisor, partner, or parent.
And being a nice guy at work can actually diminish your paycheck and decrease your odds of promotion. Being agreeable has a particularly strong impact on men's salaries, find Beth Livingston of Cornell, Timothy Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, they explored three questions: Does being nice affect your success at work? Does being nice affect your happiness at work? And do the effects of being nice differ for men and women?
Overall, they found that men made more money than women (no surprise here). Also, men who scored high on agreeableness made substantially less money (as much as $10,000 per year) than men rated low in agreeableness. While there was also a tendency for women high in agreeableness to make less money than women low in agreeableness, the difference was small. Employees high in agreeableness, however, rated themselves as happier at work than did those who were low in agreeableness.
Agreeable people are less likely to push themselves forward for recognition or advancement," suggests Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done. "They tend to do more selfless things at work. Unfortunately, doing things for the good of the group may not always get them noticed when it comes time to give out raises and bonuses." A happier life, however, may compensate for a dip in income.
Despite the stigma, nice guys also do pretty well in love. In two surveys of college women, Geoffrey Urbaniak and Peter Kilmann of the University of South Carolina found that niceness and physical attractiveness were both positive factors in women's choices and the desirability ratings they assigned to men as potential dating partners. Niceness was most important when a woman was considering a serious, long-term relationship, while attractiveness was more important when considering a casual, sexual relationship.
Once a relationship is established, however, the emotional power dynamic becomes more complex. Being nice, agreeable, and quick to compromise may be alluring at first but can lead to dependent or clingy behaviors that become a burden to a partner, who must do more decision making. Also, the agreeable partner may be suppressing negative emotions that manifest in passive-aggressive behavior, affairs (virtual or otherwise), or bottled-up resentments that eventually end the relationship.
Expressing genuine emotions and standing one's ground are valuable skills in love and work. Both can coexist within the virtue of being an agreeable personality.
Collaboration, With Clarity
Some people are natural collaborators. They welcome input from others and aim for consensus on decisions large and small. It's an empowering quality in a supervisor, and on the whole, it increases diversity, fosters relationships, and creates "buy in" and engagement from all parties.
Buzzwords like "breaking down silos," "synergy," and "cross-pollination" have emerged from the value of collaboration, and as clichéd as such concepts have become, they've largely changed the workplace for the better. Redundancies have been reduced, new ways of thinking introduced, and the energy that comes from "mixing it up"—working toward a common goal with colleagues having different perspectives and skills—is invigorating.
Further, says Breeden, "Automatic collaboration leads to underperformance and low productivity for the sake of playing well with others." Extraverts, he observes, have a special tendency to engage in wasteful collaboration because they draw their energy from others, and they often feel the need to talk through their thoughts with partners. "Extraverts," he adds, "can become workplace vampires who suck the productivity out of their coworkers."
Not to mention that there are some people for whom collaboration is totally nonproductive. It devalues those who prefer to work in isolation, or even need a bit of alone time to spend inside their own heads—the very employees who might be about to come up with the next innovative leap, as long as it doesn't get killed in committee. "Our companies, our schools, and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink," argues Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. "Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in."
Even when we think we're working alone these days, we're actually not, says Breeden. With your smartphone next to your laptop with easy access to search engines, we are more likely to be compiling a remix rather than producing something new or revolutionary. And constant distraction spells the death of creativity.
His fix? Collaborate only with intention, clear boundaries and expectations, and an understanding of individual responsibilities, and leave plenty of time for unplugged, independent thought. That way lies inspiration.
The Myth of a Balanced Life
Whether you're talking with business consultants, parents, or yoga instructors, no virtue seems to rank higher than balance these days; it's an ideal championed by the earliest philosophers and the most modern citizens. Creating balance among all the elements of life—work and home, self and others, self-discipline and enjoyment—seems to be the goal.
Buddhist physician Alex Lickerman of the University of Chicago says balance "at once describes a feeling of being in control of multiple responsibilities as well as the sense that several important areas of one's life aren't being neglected in favor of only a few. A balanced life, most would agree, feels less stressfully lived than a non-balanced life, which feels overwhelming and unsatisfying."
But the pursuit of balance is itself the cause of much imbalance. We are left to achieve it in lives that change, quite literally, moment to moment. Balance operates through a constant stream of choices. Too often it leads to constant compromise and mediocrity in all things.
Work-life balance, today's preoccupation, is probably the greatest mirage. It is achievable, as in almost all other domains, only in summation, not in the conduct of everyday life, where projects and deadlines demand bouts of concentrated commitment. Balance, then, is more a long-term goal.
Finding balance is more an internal matter than a superficial allotment of time. You need to know what is most important to you right now, what you need to build on for the future, which tasks or habits are draining your time and attention, and how much recovery time you need. The most important virtues today may in fact prove to be nimbleness and adaptability.
"Achieving balance ultimately rests on having courage," Lickerman says. "The courage to make difficult choices, to exclude other possibilities in order to choose the one that suits you best, to let go of fearing the disapproval or disappointment of others."
Mary Loftus is associate editor of Emory Magazine in Atlanta.