Organizational and leadership virtues and the role of forgiveness.

Author:Cameron, Kim
Position:Human resource management

The investigation of virtues in organizational life has been neglected. Systematic studies of the development and demonstration of virtue have been all but absent in the organizational sciences. This article highlights the potential impact of virtues in organizations, particularly the power of forgiveness to affect individual and collective outcomes. Under conditions of organizational injury and trauma, such as when organizations downsize, leaders have an especially important role to play in demonstrating virtuous behaviors. In this paper, we describe some early research findings that explore the effects of organizational virtues, and we highlight the role of one particularly misunderstood virtue--organizational forgiveness--and its role in the leadership of effective organizations.


A few researchers have recently begun to investigate dynamics in organizations that lead to the development of human strength, resiliency, and extraordinary performance. The focus of this work centers on life-giving, elevating elements in organizations that have heretofore been ignored by organizational scholars. It is a focus on positive organizational scholarship (Cameron, Dutton, & Quinn, in press). This emphasis parallels the new positive psychology movement that has shifted from the traditional emphasis on illness and pathology toward a focus on human strengths and virtues (Seligman, 2000). The consideration of issues such as joy, happiness, hope, faith, and what makes life worth living represents a shift from reparative psychology to a psychology of positive experience (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

"[Positive] psychology is not just the study of disease, weakness, and damage; it is also the study of strength and virtue. Treatment is not just fixing what is wrong; it is also building what is right. [It] is not just about illness or health; it is about work, education, insight, love, growth, and play" (Seligman, 2000:8). Consistent with this new movement, a group of organizational scholars has begun to investigate the positive side of organizational processes and performance, including how individuals in organizations, as well as the organizations themselves, become exceptional and virtuous. Our intent in this paper is to help clarify this new orientation in organizational studies and to consider one specific example of organizational virtue in some detail.


Traditionally, social scientists have treated "deviance" as a negative aberration from normal or acceptable behavior. Deviants are seen as requiring treatment or correction (Durkheim, 1938; Becker, 1963). The idea of positive deviance has largely been ignored as a phenomenon for investigation (Starbuck, 2001; Pondy, 1979). Yet, positive deviance, in the form of virtuousness, captures some of humanity's highest aspirations. Virtue, in the Aristotelian sense, is an attribute that leads to eudaimonia, a flourishing state exceeding normal happiness and excellence (Aristotle, 1106a22-23). It is more akin to ecstasy while demonstrating the highest form of humanity.

In the original Greek, virtue (arete) is applied to both individuals and organizations in recognition of the fact that virtue can be demonstrated at the individual or the collective level (Schudt, 2000). The idea that virtues can be applied to organizations in addition to individuals is sometimes controversial, yet the collective nature of virtue is easily illustrated by the studies of virtues in family units. Virtuousness in family units have been studied and categorized, so it should not be surprising that the study of virtuousness in larger organizations would also be a legitimate and worthwhile endeavor (Sandage & Hill, 2001; Walsh, 1998; Stinnett, DeFrain, & DeFrain, 1997; McCubbin, Thompson, Thompson, & Fromer, 1998).

Consistent with this perspective, recent research has begun to describe extraordinary organizations that display positive deviance. They represent an affirmative exception to typical organizational behavior (Dutton et al, 2002; Quinn, 2002). Especially on the human dimension, these organizations engender virtuousness in relationships and in the treatment of people. When they downsize they do so with caring and compassion. When they recover from crises they do so with maturity, wisdom, and forgiveness. When they set strategy they intend to do good as well as do well. They flourish, even in the face of difficulty (Weick, in press; Clifton & Harter, in press; Cooperrider & Sekerka, in press).

Virtuous organizations do more than participate in normatively prescribed corporate social responsibility, sponsor environmentally friendly programs, or utilize renewable resources (Bollier, 1996). Whereas some activities included in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) domain may represent organizational virtue (Weiser & Zadek, 2000), CSR typically revolves around the instrumental value of the activities or an exchange relationship (Charkson, 1988; Fry, Keim, & Meiners, 1982; Moore & Richardson, 1988; Piliavin & Charng, 1990; Sanchez, 2000; Weiser & Zadek, 2000). As discussed below, such motivations are antithetical to virtue.

Instead, virtuous organizations foster eudaimonia in the Aristotelian sense. They possess attributes and demonstrate behaviors that extend beyond a consistent moral or ethical code. They possess more than a strong, values-based culture. They do more than perform effectively. They embrace more than core competence or capability. Virtuous organizations are unique, in other words, in their capacity to create positive deviance. To better clarify this idea of virtuousness in organizations, we contrast the concept of virtue with other more frequently investigated concepts in organizational studies (Sandage & Hill, 2001; McCullough, Pargament, & Thoreson, 2000). Distinctions between virtue and these familiar concepts are summarized in Table 1.

Virtuousness does not stand in opposition to concepts such as ethics or moral reasoning, but it extends beyond them. Whereas these other terms focus on what is necessary, sufficient, or instrumental, virtue focuses on the highest human potential. Virtue embraces that which is good, transcendent, and honorable, or that which is most human (Peterson & Seligman, 2000; Sandage & Hill, 2001). Likewise, there is no necessary tradeoff between virtue and performance. While it is possible to be virtuous without producing profit (e.g., Maudlen Mills), and to be profitable without virtue (cf., Cameron, 1984), there is some reason to expect that a positive association may be present between virtue and organizational performance, as we discuss below.

One way to illustrate the meaning of virtue in organizations is depicted in Figure 1. At the individual level, the figure portrays a continuum ranging from illness on one end, to healthy functioning in the middle (i.e., the absence of illness). On the right side of the continuum, positive deviance is represented--i.e., Olympic physical fitness levels or psychological flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Fredrickson, 2001; Einsenberg, 1990). Each point on the continuum is qualitatively different from the other points and does not merely represent a greater or lesser quantity of the other points.

At the organizational level, the figure portrays conditions ranging from ineffective, inefficient, and error-prone performance on the left side, to effective, efficient, and reliable performance in the middle. On the right side is virtuous organizational performance, which is qualitatively distinct from the other two points. It is on the right side of the continuum that strength-building, life-giving, virtuous attributes such as compassion, forgiveness, courage, hope, humility, and integrity are manifest. These phenomena represent positive deviance from typical organizational behavior (Peterson & Seligman, 2000; Sandage & Hill, 2001). Organizational virtuousness, then, represents a capacity, an attribute, and a reserve in organizations that lead to the demonstration of positively deviant behavior.

Much organizational and management research has been conducted on the left and middle sections of this continuum, identifying the predictors and processes that account for effective performance (Cameron, 1986; Cameron & Whetten, 1996; Luthans, 2002). Less is known about the right side of the continuum and the concepts that characterize it. We briefly review here what has been learned and then offer an illustrative example of the potential effects of virtues in organizations.


Although still in the early stages of development, systematic investigations of positive or virtuous phenomena in organizations are beginning to emerge. For example, in groundbreaking work on organizational compassion, Dutton and her colleagues (Frost, et al., 2000; Dutton, et al., 2002) identified ways in which compassion is demonstrated and facilitated in organizations, and they explored its effects on human and organizational behavior. In one study, for example, they described a particularly remarkable display of organizational compassion in which three foreign students lost all of their belongings in an apartment fire. Within days, alternative housing and meals had been arranged free of charge, clothes were replaced, new computers were provided, all class notes and assignments were reconstructed by classmates, government documents were re-issued, and a generous amount of money was donated. An entire school community mobilized its compassionate efforts in response to this misfortune, all in the absence of a top-down directive or a formal organizational mandate. The organized, bottom-up process that spontaneously unfolded demonstrated the organization's compassionate capacity. This capacity was mobilized and accelerated through supportive organizational routines, values, networks, role models, and resource acquisition activities (Dutton, 2001). The...

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