What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From This 700-Person Study on Courage and Motivation

Recently, I found some support for this view from an unusual quarter: A study that analyzed the actions of non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Adam Grant references the study, conducted by two sociologists after World War II, in his excellent book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

In the study, the authors called this group of non-Jews “rescuers.” They called a similar group of non-Jews who did not try to save anyone “non-rescuers.” The study revealed that what ultimately differentiated the rescuers from the non-rescuers was how their parents had disciplined bad behavior and praised good behavior.

When the rescuers were asked to recall their childhoods and the discipline they received, the word they used most was “explained.” Their parents had focused on the why behind disciplinary actions–providing moral lessons rather than simply punishment.

Grant notes that by explaining moral principles, the parents of those in the rescuer group had given their children an appreciation of the importance of complying voluntarily with rules that align with critical values and of questioning rules that don’t. They had succeeded in encouraging critical thinking and reasoning in their children.

The result? The rescuers were almost three times more likely to reference moral values that applied to all people, emphasizing that their parents taught them to respect all human beings. There was no rule they were following that prescribed helping victims of persecution–but they rescued Jews anyway.

Strong values are much more effective at eliciting positive outcomes and behaviors than rules.

I’ve found that this principle applies as well to business as it does to parenting. Values are critical for helping team members make thoughtful, sound decisions. They are also adaptable: Values can cover hundreds, if not thousands, of situations.

At the core, values are about who we want to be, not just what we want to do in some specific situation. For example, in one study Grant wrote about in a New York Times article, researchers found that children who were asked to be “helpers” instead of “to help” were more likely to clean up toys when asked. In another study, adults who were told, “Please don’t be a cheater,” cheated 50 percent less than those who were told, “Please don’t cheat.”

Rules, in contrast, often feel arbitrary and can quickly become outdated. It’s also virtually impossible to create rules that cover all possible behaviors or to monitor adherence.

Highly successful families, organizations and companies therefore select and focus on a few values that are most important to them. They explain the why informing those values and thoughtfully reinforce the standards they set. People are held accountable for not meeting standards and celebrated for behaviors that support those values.

At Acceleration Partners, our core values are: own it, embrace relationships, and excel and improve. These values inform every process in the company, from hiring to strategy. And we reinforce our core values through check-ins, company shout-outs and end-of-year “Core Value Awards,” which are voted on by peers. When a decision needs to me made and there is no clear guideline, we expect employees to turn to our values to find their answer.

This approach encourages team members to openly question decisions or actions that appear inconsistent with our values. And that, in turn, teaches something important–both to our company and the people who comprise it: Enforcement should not be a top-down process, but something facilitated by all members of the group.

At the end of the day, values will always trump rules when it comes to encouraging behaviors and attitudes that are conducive to success and personal accountability. The data is clear-and so is history.