Value Systems : Tenets in Common: Virtue - Mastery at Work

Prior to starting her own business in 1992, Jamie Walters helped establish Virginia's Superfund Community Relations Program for the Commonwealth’s Department of Waste Management. When she joined VDWM, the community-relations program didn't exist; when she left, she had established a highly regarded program with outreach to more than forty cleanup communities. She is the author of many articles on leadership. Her latest book is  "Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success Without Growing Big" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco).

 Contact Jamie.

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.

Many wisdom and faith traditions share core tenets that seekers might apply on the everyday path to an enlightened life. Even if you shudder at the thought of spirituality at work, many of these "Golden Rules," stripped of their pigeonholing as strictly spiritual thoughts, can be applied as interpersonal mastery practices. Here are a few of our favorite "Tenets in Common" and examples of how they might enhance your workplace (and your own experience of it!):

  • Encouragement
  • Forgiveness
  • Accountability
  • Service
  • Mindfulness
  • Encouragement

Anyone journeying through life — and certainly seekers of the enlightened life — will go through times of hard questioning, disheartenment or struggle to reach a  new level of understanding. Kindred seekers are called upon to "cause courage" and to shore up another's strength as he progresses along his chosen wisdom path.

Workplace Application: 

Erin, a desktop support technician, approaches her supervisor, Oliver, with her ideas for improvement of the support intranet site. Oliver knows that Erin would like to move beyond her current position, and this work outside of her job description will help her create a niche for herself. Unfortunately, the support department is swamped with repair requests - Oliver can’t give Erin company time to develop her ideas (or perhaps he won't allow her time to share her ideas for fear he'll appear lackluster in comparison).

Giving Guidance Along The Path

Oliver could flatly admonish Erin to focus on the work she was hired to do - why should he give her leeway to create a situation that might leave him with one less technician? But if Oliver believes that encouragement is a component of his personal (and thus workplace) mission, he will know that Erin's ideas could add value to his department, and commit to supporting Erin's progress and mindset as she develops her concepts on her own time while continuing to fulfill her official duties. Oliver proactively recognizes that an important attribute of quality employees is the wish to continually grow and learn, and that part of his job is to motivate the men and women who report to him so that each reaches his or her highest potential while doing their part to fulfill the day to day needs of the department and organization. When encouragement is a virtue, everyone can shine.


Forgiveness seems simple at face value - somebody says I’m sorry, you say "okay, I forgive you", and that’s that. But real forgiveness, when undertaken as a wisdom and mastery practice, involves searching one’s deepest self to discover whether the pardon has truly been accompanied by a release of resentment. To grant a clean slate and move forward anew, which requires transcending the human tendency for warehousing the details of wrongs committed, and leaping into the higher concept of grace.

Workplace Application:

Susan completely botched an assignment. Misunderstanding what was being asked of her, she failed to complete work that her supervisor Jane had counted on delivering by the end of the day. The next morning, an angry Jane finds herself with the tasks of appeasing a disgruntled client, reprimanding Susan for the unfinished work, and deciding whom she’ll assign a new work project that has similar requirements.

Analyze, Agree and Let Go

What are Jane's options? She could decide that she can’t trust Susan to work in that capacity again — which would prevent Susan the opportunity to apply her hard-won learnings to the situation. She could give Susan the new assignment, then micro-manage every detail, subjecting Susan to humiliating disempowerment. Or, if Jane approached her management duties based on the Golden Rule of forgiveness, she would focus on the fact that Susan’s unfinished work was the product of misunderstanding and false assumption. She would work with Susan to analyze what information Susan needs to understand the new assignment, and develop mutually-agreed upon procedures that foster clear understanding of expectations. Jane can give Susan the new assignment with no further mention of yesterday’s debacle, trusting her to do the work correctly. Susan can feel empowered in the knowledge that Jane’s intent is not to catalog  Susan's failures, but to give her the tools to be a better (and happier) contributor. And Susan has the opportunity to approach the new assignment mindfully, producing a result that reinforces Jane's decision to give her another chance.


A practitioner of many wisdom traditions is advised to hold himself accountable; to invite feedback when his behavior seems in opposition to his stated beliefs. He might also be asked to provide compassionate feedback to others, and offer support and motivation for another's recommitment to the virtues of their own wisdom path. There is comfort in knowing that each group member’s resolve to assist others heightens awareness of their responsibility for their own actions. That most, if not all, wisdom traditions require loving and compassionate action toward others prevents the "feedback giving" from becoming hyper-critical nay-saying.

Workplace Application:

Dan is consistently late in delivering his portion of projects, which leaves the rest of his team scrambling to cover his work or extending the deadline at the last minute. Dan always enthusiastically commits to responsibilities, but as due dates draw near, co-workers can depend on him to come up with excuses for his non-performance. His fellow team-members stew with resentment — primarily because they've worked so hard to complete a quality project and now feel deflated and disappointed.

Responsibility And Results

Dan’s peers can continue their mad rescues ad nauseam, but their codependent behavior serves no one — neither Dan nor themselves. Dan has no incentive to change as long as the group shores him up, and the group sells itself short by compromising their reliability and the quality of their output.

When the team commits to the practice of accountability, they require Dan to be responsible for the consequences of his actions; for his disrespectful treatment of his work and co-workers. Accountability requires clear communication throughout each project. As a group, digging deep to discuss each individual’s possible roadblocks, planning for contingencies and agreeing to communicate delays as quickly as possible helps to solidify expectations for performance.

Calling Dan’s attention to his chronic tardiness — complete with specifics on the projects for which he was late in delivering his share, and how that makes his colleagues feel (and the group appear to others in the organization) — allows the team to discover the barriers to performance, insist that Dan address obstacles and respect his colleagues and commitments. Team discussion of desired behaviors, creation of written delivery agreements and a progress check-in schedule to avoid last-minute disasters makes the clear statement that each is to act for the good of the whole. Of course, a skillful leader will make sure that performance priorities and expectations are clear, and include regular performance progress discussions so that issues don't become chronic to the point where they negatively affect the team and the organization. Accountability — and integrity — require that, when a team member has accepted a job and is receiving a paycheck for that job, he does his best to fulfill his role in an excellent manner.


"Would it change your day if upon waking you asked, ‘How can I be of service?’ If, after asking, you journeyed through your day as if each circumstance provided an answer to your question?" asks Jamie Walters in her book, Big Vision, Small Business (Ivy Sea Publishing, April 2001). It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that service to the world is made up of only the grand gestures, but when Mother Theresa was asked how one could change the world, she responded, "…pick up a broom." Dorothy Day, for her part, extolled the virtues inherent in "the little work" — such as answering the phone, doing your paperwork, interacting with colleagues. An attitude that service can be rendered in seemingly mundane activities is a practice that can change your life. What would your workday be like if you treated every interaction as an opportunity for service?

Workplace Application:

Joanne is beginning to suspect that she has stumbled upon the ultimate Client from Hell. Constant phone calls, conversations reiterating the same information, mulling over details of a project phase that won’t be officially addressed until much later. Joanne is frustrated with the level of hand-holding she must undertake, and can barely contain her irritation when she yet again hears the client’s voice on the line.

Shift That Attitude – Miracles May Happen

If Joanne changes her center of focus from her own irritation to wondering how she can best serve her client, she may make room for an important insight. The next time the phone rings, Joanne can sincerely say, "I’m hearing a lot of concern in your voice. I know that you value my expertise, but what else can I do for you to increase your confidence in my ability to complete this project to your satisfaction?" Her willingness to be of service reminds the client of his initial reason for retaining her, while inviting communication that helps develop a clear "game plan for satisfaction." Perhaps a weekly e-mail progress report or telephone meeting will suffice, or maybe the client needs a bit of education about processes to feel more "in the loop." Strategic probing questions will help Joanne create a plan for touching bases that considers the needs of her client and sets boundaries for her own efficiency.


Mindfulness, or being aware of what you're doing at any particular moment, is encouraged by many spiritual and philosophical practices. In a world that reveres multi-tasking and mobile phones, this practice takes practice! Training the mind to pay attention to what’s going on in each moment, banishing idle thought or rumination about past or future events, can reap extraordinary benefits. To concentrate on what’s happening right now can have you noticing details about your world that previously escaped your attention. To listen deeply when someone speaks affords knowledge you might have missed. Practice mindfulness, and you'll realize how awful it feels — for you and others — when you're scattered and preoccupied with something other than what you're doing at the moment. Mindfulness practice reveals the sacredness and learning available to us in every moment of every day.

Workplace Application:

Morning traffic was horrid, his computer won’t let him log on to the network, he’s wondering if he’ll get to the dry cleaners before it closes, and now Leo’s manager, Jane, is looming over him, asking about something Leo surely doesn’t have time to deal with. But who knows what Jane is really talking about. Leo can see that her lips are moving; but Leo's too busy thinking about traffic or what he might say next to listen to what Jane's saying right now. Uh, oh, Jane just asked Leo a question. Now what?

Not A Moment Too Soon

If Leo keeps his mind in "whirl" mode, he’ll unfortunately be practicing an all-too-common workplace thinking process. It’s very easy to let one’s mind go on a tangent, or tangents, and very difficult and embarrassing to rope it back in when others witness your preoccupation and your attempts to catch up.

If Leo practices mindfulness, he can get back in the moment by admitting "I’m sorry, I wasn’t focusing on what you were saying," then re-set the stage by inviting Jane to sit down as he clears his mind and readies himself to pay attention. Reminding himself that "the past is behind him, the future not yet real," Leo can frame each interaction, honor its importance and absorb information on the first go-round, rather than wondering what the conversation was about as it wraps up. He might start the next day with less worry about how much traffic there is; he can take a few minutes to "get into his day" once he gets to his office; he can map out his plan for the day which allows him to pay attention to each task as he's doing it — even if something unexpected occurs.

Make Ordinary Days Extraordinary

We’re sure you can think of more "Golden Rules" to integrate into your "wise plan for workplace grace." Honesty, integrity, gratitude and compassion are just a few that come to mind as additions to the list. What might those look like when applied to the day-to-day activities common to the workplace? Making the practice of these and other tenets a regular habit can transform your thinking about the nature of your work, enhance your interactions with colleagues and "improve your serve" by keeping you in constant awareness of the contribution you might make to the world — when you're paying attention!

This information provides food for thought rather than counsel specifically designed to meet the needs of your organization. Please use it mindfully. The most effective interpersonal or organizational  communication plan should be tailored to your unique needs, so don't hesitate to get assistance from a personal coach or business advisor.

Ó Copyright Ivy Sea Inc, 2004

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