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July 12, 2023

Workplace Virtues for Digital Transformation

By Mark Schwartz

In Aristophanes’s The Clouds, Strepsiades asks Socrates to help in his business affairs by teaching him to become “bold, glib of tongue, audacious, impudent, shameless, a fabricator of falsehoods, inventive of words, a practiced knave in lawsuits, a law-tablet, a thorough rattle, a fox, a sharper, a slippery knave, a dissembler, a slippery fellow, an impostor, a gallows-bird, a blackguard, a twister, a troublesome fellow, a licker-up of hashes.” Though I’m not sure what all of these mean—and I am pretty curious about the licker-up of hashes—I am quite certain that these are not the virtues I would promote for the workplace. 

What, then, are the virtues of the digital workplace and how can employees demonstrate them? There are many candidate virtues: we could begin with Aristotle’s list, or Benjamin Franklin’s, or Shannon Vallor’s, or ask for Shrek’s. Happily, as the author I get to make up my own. In this post, (which is excerpted and abridged from my book Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation) I’ll present the ones that seem most important for a digitally transforming organization. They are all debatable; perhaps Ben Franklin had it right and chastity is more important than I’m giving it credit for. 

At Amazon, it’s traditional to add “unless you know better ones” to lists of principles. Humility suggests that I do the same here.

Once I’ve explained my choice of workplace virtues, I’ll talk about what it means to manage in an environment where these are the critical virtues. The role of a manager—particularly the role of the leader of a digital transformation—looks very different from what we’re used to.

My list of virtues is: impeccability, presence, authenticity, manners, care, courage, humility, intellectual integrity, curiosity, stewardship, inclusivity, justice, respect, practical wisdom—unless you know better ones.

Here’s how I define each of them and why they fit.


Impeccability is the aggregate of the workplace virtues combined with a high personal standard that involves constantly asking oneself, “Am I acting impeccably?” It’s a virtue of continuous learning and improvement, a self-­reflecting “conscience” or “superego,” applied beyond just situations where there’s a clear choice between good and bad. It’s a virtue of adaptability and agility.


Presence is the digital workplace virtue of showing up; that is, bringing oneself to work. In a traditional, bureaucratic organization an employee must show up as a clean slate, all personal characteristics erased. In a digital workplace, employees show up as human beings, bringing diversity and human attributes. A digital employee cares about their work, interacts inclusively with their colleagues, and contributes to the shared enterprise. 


While the virtue of presence is a virtue of showing up as an individual, authenticity is the virtue of acting and communicating as that individual. It is the virtue of presenting one’s true self in communications, of speaking and writing sincerely and with a genuine desire to communicate. It is an antidote to bullshit and opposed to the bureaucratic values of conformity and neutrality. It requires suppressing all great gasying wordes.


Okay, this one is weird. I told you I wasn’t going to be talking about etiquette, but I find myself strangely forced to do so. Presence and authenticity raise a worrying question: Given that some people are jerks, do we really want them to bring themselves to work? No. There’s a virtue that counteracts jerky behavior, something like a virtue of appropriateness, good behavior, propriety, adherence to form, politeness, or civility. I’ll call it manners. Appropriateness, good behavior, propriety, adherence to form, politeness, civility; one’s “manner of acting and being in the world” more generally; one’s habits, tastes, and sensibilities. And putting the fork on the left.


A digital organization does not encourage leaving one’s caring, compassion, and concern at home and acting impersonally at the office. Caring is a disposition to meet the needs of those one is collaborating with toward a common cause, and those one affects through one’s work. A virtuous manager is concerned for their workers. It’s a cliché of the bureaucratic world that a manager must make “hard” and “painful” decisions without batting an eye; caring too much for employees makes a manager unfit to do what is necessary.


Workplace courage is the virtue of making difficult decisions; of not hiding behind data or bureaucratic rules or deferring decisions until too late. Courage is the virtue that addresses the existential fear and trembling of having to take the responsibility for one’s decisions, and maybe also the fear of Big Julius, the workplace bully. A courageous employee takes responsibility for calling attention to and disrupting unethical practices and for rising to action in a complex world where there are no given right answers.


We all know that our own beliefs are correct. I certainly do. When we come together with a diverse group of fellow employees, it’s odd to find that some of them disagree with us. Humility is an ability to accept, at least provisionally, that they might be slightly more right. 

Intellectual integrity

Commitment to the rigorous use of the tools of the trade; presenting both sides of any story; bringing knowledge, derived from study and experience, to one’s activities. Unwillingness to distort information or hide bad news; honest and informed use of data; using data with openness and curiosity and making sure one’s inferences from it are justified.


The virtue of curiosity is the virtue of continuously learning, being open to instruction, and having a learning mindset. It is not just about learning a particular functional skill, but about valuing learning and education in their broadest senses. Not just book-education or school-education, but a constant seeking after new knowledge.


Stewardship is the essential management virtue of the digital organization. We no longer manage by applying organizational power to control a section of the org chart. Instead, the virtue of stewardship involves taking on the responsibility for advancing the ends of the organization as a whole. In a bureaucratic organization a manager “owns” a function and guards it against encroachment. “It’s none of your business” or “Stay in your own lane” are reasonable responses to questioning. In the digital organization, the manager is a “steward” of a function. Their desire is to contribute to organizational results, whether it is directly through the employees they manage or through supporting another manager or organizational unit. If a non-IT manager has a great IT idea, a CIO with the virtue of stewardship does not resist it. An enterprise is a cross-functional collaboration seeking the best results.


Using the diverse skills of the organization to achieve the company’s results; making sure the company and the employees gain the advantage of all the skills, experience, creativity, enthusiasm, etc. brought by all team members; stewardship through enablement, harmonization, vision, support, and impediment removal.


The bureaucratic notion of fairness in the sense of treating everyone by the same rules doesn’t go deep enough for today’s needs. In particular, it doesn’t address equity. Treating everyone the same doesn’t help balance disadvantages that some groups or individuals have for reasons external to the bureaucracy.

There is a workplace virtue—let’s call it justice—that is similar to but broader than the bureaucratic ideal of fairness and includes equity and helping others achieve their full potential. It’s true that a virtue of justice does not in itself provide protections for employees against unfair treatment; but then again, it is the legal system, not the ethical, that provides “protections.” In an organization, our central concern is to make sure everyone flourishes.


Respect, the virtue that follows from the autonomy principle and CIv2, is the virtue of honoring the autonomy and dignity of individuals. Employees and managers should develop the virtue of seeing the human through the number. Target markets consist of individuals, not just increments toward goals. Data-drivenness should not be a distraction from human and moral issues. People are to be treated as ends in themselves rather than merely as means. 

Practical wisdom

Aristotle had this one right. The virtues described above may conflict or may need to be modified when they are applied in specific circumstances. The dilemma of digital transformation, I have said, is the need to make decisions where there are multiple, competing imperatives, especially when inherited bureaucratic values compete with new, digital ones. Practical wisdom is the virtue of weighing the facts, needs, and players in a situation and applying the virtues appropriately.


I could propose many more workplace virtues, but the virtue of brevity suggested itself. I was inspired by The Kural “Those who can’t speak a few faultless words love to speak many words.”28 I thought about the office bore: “If one at the end of a branch keeps climbing his life is over.”

Read more in Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation by Mark Schwartz. Available July 25, 2023.

- About The Authors
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Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an iconoclastic CIO and a playful crafter of ideas, an inveterate purveyor of lucubratory prose. He has been an IT leader in organizations small and large, public, private, and nonprofit. As an Enterprise Strategist for Amazon Web Services, he uses his CIO experience to bring strategies to enterprises or enterprises to strategies, and bring both to the cloud. As the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, he provoked the federal government into adopting Agile and DevOps practices. He is pretty sure that when he was the CIO of Intrax Cultural Exchange he was the first person ever to use business intelligence and supply chain analytics to place au pairs with the right host families. Mark speaks frequently on innovation, bureaucratic implications of DevOps, and using Agile processes in low-trust environments. With a BS in computer science from Yale, a master’s in philosophy from Yale, and an MBA from Wharton, Mark is either an expert on the business value of IT or else he just thinks about it a lot.

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