Benchmark Ethics: Openness

Openness is the companion virtue to loyalty (the subject of Benchmark Ethics 5). Openness (in individual character or organizational culture) is not the same thing as emptiness; it doesn’t mean abandoning everything. But a radical openness, anchored by loyalty to one’s core mission and values, is a critical component in a benchmark ethics. Open people and organizations are more likely to succeed in business terms — and more likely to contribute to good lives for individuals and communities.

Think of the opposite traits: closed-mindedness, narrowness, and rigidity. We would call those “vices” because they represent an unwillingness to learn and grow, a stifling of creativity and freedom, an arrogance and self-satisfaction that can easily slide into bigotry and worse. Openness is the virtue; “closed-ness” is the vice.

The relationship between loyalty and openness as moral values is a close parallel to James Collins and Jerry Porras’s formula for business values in their Built to Last. They argue that the great companies first of all “preserve the core” — they stay fiercely loyal to their core mission and values. But, second, these great companies “stimulate progress” by reaching for “big, hairy, audacious goals” and by cultivating a “try lots of things, keep what works” approach. That’s openness.

From a business perspective alone it is common sense to cultivate openness. A few years ago a friend of mine in another country observed, with some chagrin, that his own people often had the attitude “we are the greatest of all nations and therefore we do not need or want any of your ideas.” In contrast, the attitudes of Germany, Japan, and the United States were more like “we are the greatest of all nations; let us know all your best ideas so we can appropriate some of them and become even greater.” Openness is not a sign of weakness but of strength. We all know what three nations lead the global economy.

Openness needs to be practiced in at least three directions. First, openness is directed toward people. Openness is receptive to others, inclusive rather than exclusive. It is welcoming of diversity. It values (not just “tolerates”) others, and seeks to discover the gifts and talents of those others. It welcomes connections and relationships around the world and across all divisions within our own society. It learns how to listen with patient attention and how to speak the language of the other. It learns the customs and culture of others and seeks to show respect.

How are we doing today? Not too bad. We have a real push for diversity in the workforce. More and more work environments foster interaction among people (e.g., Hewlett-Packard) rather than isolating them in separate offices. Today’s transportation and communication technologies help us stay open and connected to our people.

Openness has a second direction — toward ideas. This is “intellectual openness” — openness to creativity, innovation, and novelty. The contrasting vice was captured by a book title several years ago: The Seven Last Words of the Church: We Never Did It That Way Before. Whether born of stubborn pride or fear, refusing to be open to new ideas is deadly for business and for relationships. Today’s high tech business world is strong on this kind of openness, as evidenced by Tom Peters’ “Thriving on Chaos,” by the radical “reengineeering” proposed by Michael Hammer and James Champy, and by Kevin Kelly’s passionate challenge to increase connectivity and openness in every direction. James Champy, in his Reengineering Management, found that openness was a top ten characteristic of the successful businesses he studied.

Third, and finally, openness is directed toward criticism. It is easy to be open to innovative, creative ideas that strengthen our opinions and proposals; openness to criticism is far more difficult. It is an admission of possible weakness or failure — not something our macho culture will applaud. Over the longer haul, though, openness to criticism is a source of strength. It will help us discover problems and cut our losses while they are relatively small, rather than getting really nailed farther down the road. This third kind of openness takes some humility, courage, and strength of character.

Criticism on technical and business grounds is part of what this is about, but unless we allow moral/ethical criticism as well, we have not yet achieved the benchmark virtue of openness. Moral/ethical criticism asks whether a technology or a business decision is good or bad for people (employees and their families, customers, community members, future generations). Moral/ethical criticism refuses to allow technological rationality or market mechanisms to operate unimpeded, unquestioned about impacts on people. It is not content to justify itself by saying “everybody else is doing it, so I will too.” It doesn’t just ask “what is profitable?” or “what is effective?” but “what is right?”

Openness is a fundamental character virtue for good organizations and their leaders in all times and places.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.