The Two Edged Sword of Religion: Why Religion helps and hurts our behavior, and why clarifying individual values are critical to building loyalty in organizations.
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be inspired by their religious beliefs to be better people, and other people with the same beliefs don’t seem to be good people at all? One key factor in explaining this phenomenon is timing – when do they apply their religious beliefs?
Do they apply the prescriptive recommendations of their religious system before a final decision has been made, or after the behavior has happened or the decision has been made? Is it a part of the deliberative process, or the justification process?
This same timing is critical when building loyalty and trust in any organization. People need to understand their own values, and clearly understand the values of their immediate supervisor, their teammates, and the leadership of the organization; in that order. People want to know how you will make decisions before you make them, not how you will spin your decision after you’ve already made it.
This is the fundamental mistake I see leadership in organizations make. You can’t build real loyalty if people don’t trust you. People know instinctively when they are being fed spin; it builds immediate mistrust. What people do trust is when actions match words, and the best way to reproduce this formula over and over again at all levels of your organization is to clarify values.
Why is timing so important?
Building on my two previous blogs, Why Democrats and Republicans Can’t Get Along and What Babies and College Football Tell us About Human Nature, understanding why timing is so important is directly related to how we as humans actually make decisions.
In general, our actual behaviors and the decisions we make have much more to do with the 99% of our mental processes we are unaware exist. What we commonly think of as “making our decisions,” what most of us know as our “mind” or our “rationality,” for the most part is responsible for justifying these decisions after they have already been made.
This is the reason smart people are not necessarily, or even more likely, to be better people or make better ethical decisions. They have a much greater capacity to justify to themselves, and to others, the decisions they make regardless of the inherent good or bad involved.
Studies have shown most humans are very susceptible to questionable behavior as long as there is plausible deniability; in other words a reasonable explanation of why it’s really “ok” and not “bad” behavior. The smarter you are the more temptation to “cut corners,” as you have a greater confidence in your ability to explain it away later.
What religion and values can do for us if applied with the correct timing – during the deliberative process before a final decision has been made – is that they can proactively circumvent the process of doing what we want and then “rationalizing” it afterwards?
Religion and values both introduce an objective model with guidelines that are outside the confines of our own malleable ethical system. It is harder to post-hoc justify something when your values are public rather than private, or when you openly profess values of an established religion.
When people in your organization clarify their own values, and communicate them consistently through their words and actions, you will build lasting trust, goodwill, and loyalty throughout the entire organization, and performance will only improve with time. What’s even more exciting is that with a foundation of trust you can successfully introduce more advanced communication skills that make creative problem solving truly come to life – you can build towards Dynamic Discourse™.
Why is Religion a two edged sword?
To answer our original question, “Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be inspired by their religious beliefs to be better people, and other people with the same beliefs don’t seem to be good people at all?” we can now understand why Religion is a two edged sword.
People who are “good” people based on their religious beliefs allow the ethical systems within these religions to influence them during the deliberative process, before they make final decisions and before they act. It is especially noticeable in people who have made radical changes in their lives. They have replaced what “feels” right – the actions and decisions that got them into trouble in the first place – with what “is” right – actions that have made them noticeably better people.
In contrast, people who aren’t good people but share these same religious beliefs, are leveraging the principles of the religion to strengthen their ability to justify their behavior or their decisions after the fact. The mind is especially good at finding confirmation of our beliefs, and not very good at finding evidence to disprove our beliefs. When people believe in a religious system, and they want to believe their other beliefs or actions are “ok,” they become very adept at manipulating the one to fit the other. In the extreme this is known as a cult.
I think the popular acronym “WWJD” is effective in communicating the good side of this equation. By its very nature the statement, “What would Jesus do?” implies we ask this question before we make a decision, and secondly Jesus tended to teach more through this actions than his explanations – a rule that is good for all leaders to take seriously.
Leadership and Loyalty
I am quite sure every religion has some form of this affirmative statement, and in this way they are all equally great at reminding us of when to apply our religious beliefs. Likewise, to be a powerful leader in any organization we need to let our actions follow our explanations and not the other way around.
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