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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

Character Strengths: Justice

Today we're going to start a new series called Character Strengths. For anyone who knows me, I really love positive psychology. I do not love toxic positivity where you're supposed to act like you're happy all the time, but really in terms of studying psychology, we always start by learning about the things that can go wrong with someone, the things that are wrong, where you're giving perhaps a negative diagnosis, or a diagnosis of difficulty. But there's actually so much more to humanity. We are so incredible in the ways we lift people up and grow and expand and support each other. So, there's a field of psychology called positive psychology, and we should bring it into the workplace a little bit more. We're going to do a little reading. There is a book that I used in formulating the research study that ended up being my dissertation and concerned positive psychology. But I also was studying industrial-organizational psychology, which is business psychology, so I want to bring those together now. The thing about character strengths is they're a little bit hard to explain in terms of how they were developed, because there's so much research. The book I used is titled Character Strengths and Virtues by Drs. Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman (2004). Most of it is research, almost all of it. So it's a really dense book – and we're not going to go into all of that today, but I wanted you to know that I try not to talk about anything that isn't backed by research.

I am going to do storytime. Based in the moral philosophies and religions that have come about throughout the thousands of years that humans have been here, there are things called virtues, and the Virtues they've distilled down in these books were determined through a research method called factor analysis. They've come up with six major Virtues that people have. They are wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The Character Strengths are the processes or mechanisms that go into defining those virtues.

We're going to review one today. Since I already had to spend a little bit of time talking about this, I’ll pick a Virtue that is comprised of only three Character Strengths. I think this would be an amazing way to start thinking about yourself more positively and about other people more positively. It's really easy to look at negative things about ourselves and say, “Oh, I could be stronger in this, I could be better than this.” Well, you already have strengths. There’s a personality test about strengths called Strength Finder, and the idea is to really highlight the things you're great at. And don't try to build up as much the things you're weaker at. Of course, you always want to try to get better, but focusing on your negatives means that you're downplaying these things that are already strengths, where you can add so much to society, your workplace, your family, your community by really thinking about those and emulating them even more.

Today our Virtue is going to be Justice, and it is comprised of three character strengths. They say Justice is broadly interpersonal, relevant to the optimal interaction between the individual and the group or the community. So, Justice is a place where we are bridging from the individual to the community or the group, and justice is required to make that bridge. You probably have your own definition of justice and some would be a lot different than how they talk about it here. But in terms of a virtue about being a Just person, it is going to be made of three strengths. The first is Citizenship, which they also call social responsibility, loyalty, or teamwork.

The character strength of Citizenship entails an identification with and sense of obligation to a common goal that includes oneself but stretches beyond one's personal interest to include the group of which one is a member. People with the strength have the sense of duty to the group in question and pull their own weight as a group member – not because external circumstances force them but because they regard it as what a group member should do. I moved to a community about 15 years ago that has this amazing network of a particular sorority and particular fraternity. I had never been part of the Greek university system, so I wasn't really aware of all that can happen once you're out of college. What I have seen is the extent to which they support each other. They might be each other's friends, but even if they aren't, they are a resource to each other. They help each other network. A person's going into business needs a reference to talk to, and someone helps them network for the business. The idea is they're always building each other up. You would never push down one of your group members or try to harm them or compete with them in business or anything like that. You're always looking to lift everyone up. That's a gorgeous thing.

And obviously, if the entire world could aim to lift each other up, what an extraordinary, extraordinary place it would be as opposed to ever trying to put someone down. But we do try to put people down all the time. We don't like to think of it that way, but we do. And you see it in political situations all the time. But Citizenship in this way can happen in your own company, your department, where you're always there to build each other up and support each other as colleagues. You can think of your own company as a group you're part of, and thus you working for the company supports the company and you're all in this together. You could also think of it just within your department with other people in the company. It could also be an informal networking situation where maybe you're a leader in the company and you offer maybe a mentorship program, either informally or formally. People who are mentors or who start a mentorship program are high in the character strength of Citizenship because they are looking for how to build everyone up. So that's something you might see in yourself, want to foster more in yourself, or see in other people. Even if you don't have a lot in common with a person, what kind of position could you put them in where you can help them show off that character strength? And I will say that is not necessarily a job title change. What it could be is an informal mentorship program, where you ask that person (whatever their role in the company is) to start mentoring newer people and teach them the ropes. And it could be a great thing for everyone. Right?

All right. Let's go to the next character strength involved in Justice, which is Fairness. You may or may not have heard Dr. Jeff Kingsley talk about the concept of Fairness as being a very difficult one, because it depends on the person's perspective. So how can that be a character strength? We're going to get into that. Dr. Kingsley and I wrote an article, an opinion piece about an ethical issue, and we discussed two broad philosophical ways of thinking about fairness. There's fairness to the group, which is a little bit what we were just talking about with citizenship, and there's fairness to the individual. For people who have ever seen the show MASH, it took place during the Korean war, but the TV show was filmed during the Vietnam war, so it was supposed to be an obvious corollary. Anyway, it's wartime and this woman's baby is crying and she's on a bus with a bunch of other people, people who are hiding and pretending the bus is abandoned. If the baby is heard crying, everyone on the bus will be killed or taken as a prisoner of war. Her choices are the baby or everyone else. She makes a choice and that's where it's the common good versus an individual, right?

How do we take that into a character strength? When in the workplace, it's not going to be hopefully that life or death of a situation, but there are things where there's Fairness, where maybe you have to lay people off because your business isn't doing well. Or there's someone in the department who isn't pulling their weight, and you've done all the coaching and performance improvement possible, but they simply aren't making it. It might be fair to the individual to keep them because they keep getting a paycheck and they're trying their best and whatever, but it's definitely not fair to the other people they're working with who are having to pull an extra load. In fact, if you terminate the person, it might be that everyone else then gets to rely on a better person for that job who's going to be hired instead. So, what is fair is a hard thing. How does it work with character strengths then since there is that moral dilemma? I thought the definition was pretty good: “The character strength of fairness refers to an individual's treatment of other people in similar or identical ways – not letting one's personal feelings or issues bias decisions about others. Fairness involves giving everyone a fair chance and being committed to the idea that the same rules apply to everyone.”

That's key, right? So. whatever the moral dilemma is, as long as you've chosen a way to do what you think is the right thing to do, that is what you should do with everybody. If you don't show favorites, you're being Fair. Maybe you have company values and one person just consistently is not showing those values. Keeping them is not fair to everyone, and maybe that's okay or not; it depends on how you look at it. But if you would keep that person who you like but is not supporting the company values, then you would have to keep a person you don't like, even if they don't show the company values. It's about having the same standard for everyone. I'm sure we can think of many examples where people don't have the same fair standard, and that becomes a very difficult workplace to work in. That imbalance can be very, very difficult for people and usually creates a very toxic environment.

The third characteristic is Leadership. I had never heard this description about leadership before I read this book and I love it. I'm not going to read you the definition. I'm going to read you just something else about it. It says: “Theorists concerned with leadership usually distinguish two tasks of any leader: getting the group members to do what they are supposed to do and creating and preserving relationships and morale among these members.”

So, the idea is that you get people to do what they're supposed to do, where you’re all on the same page, have the same expectations. The other part is really about the workplace environment. And not just the workplace; it can be family. You want good morale in your family, in your community group, whatever it is. So, if you look in business leadership, this type of leader is often called a “transformational leader.”

You'll also see it in servant leadership, where the idea is that to elevate the people who work with you, you either do it through your words, by being inspirational when you speak, or you do it by showing that behavior. You do what you expect other people to do, and it's kind of like “the buck stops here” as they say in the book. This is leadership where you say, “I expect this level of quality; I'm going to show this level of quality. Or I expect this core value, and I'm going to show it and I expect you to show it” and that sort of thing.

So that's it for today. I know this is a little more academic of a conversation, but I really love academic conversations for one thing, but I also love philosophical conversations and how we can improve ourselves as people and improve the lives of the people around us. I'm not saying we should improve the people around us – I’m sure they're perfect the way they are – but we can improve how we interact with them, how we add value to the world, focusing on the positive psychology part of our lives. And so we'll go over more character strengths and virtues next time. Bye!


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