Barry Schwartz studies wisdom and gave a brilliant Ted lecture on the topic that you won’t want to miss. In case you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the whole lecture now, here are the highlights.

Leaders want to encourage certain behaviors in their employees, ones they believe will advance the organization’s mission. The goal is for people to grow in wisdom – acting based on intelligence, experience and common sense. Dr. Schwartz discusses how to promote practical wisdom, which he defines as the moral will (I want to contribute) and skill (I know how to help) to do the right things.

Using the example of hospital janitors, Dr. Schwartz outlined how people use practical wisdom to make a difference. Although their job descriptions included nothing about contact with human beings, their care for and interactions with others positively impacted patient care and outcomes. The janitors:

Ignored orders in order to help people. A janitor skipped cleaning the waiting room out of respect for sleeping visitors who had been at the hospital for days.

Improvised based on the situation. Because a parent did not see him do it the first time, one janitor re-mopped a comatose patient’s room.

Used their skills to serve others, not themselves. These janitors often added to their own workload, so that patients’ and families’ needs were met.

Leaders often create rules and incentives to increase the likelihood that people will exhibit desired behaviors. Dr. Schwartz cautions that rules keep people from making well-reasoned judgments and don’t allow improvisation in the service of what is right.

Incentives seem harmless, but they shift people’s thinking from, “What is my responsibility?” to “What is in my best interest?” In effect, activities that involve incentives have been shown to reduce morale and morality.

Rather than more rules, incentives or ethics policies, Dr. Schwartz advises us to:

Celebrate moral heroes who show practical wisdom every day.

Get to know the people in your organization in order to know how to encourage moral will and skill.

Allow people the time and give them permission to do the right thing, because moral heroes are made, not born.

Think you’ve got the right amount and types of rules and incentives? Maybe it’s time for a second look. As Dr. Schwartz says, without wisdom, brilliance can get you into trouble. Watch this Ted video now.

Need help developing practical wisdom in your organization? Contact Humanergy.

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