As a company, we have always aspired to not have a lot of rules. Instead, we prefer to focus on and reinforce our company’s core values. We believe they are key directional markers that can help team members make more thoughtful, sound decisions.
Recently, while reading Adam Grant’s book Originals, I learned about a study done by two sociologists who studied non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust (rescuers) with a group of neighbors who lived in the same town but who did nothing (non-rescuers).
The study revealed that what ultimately differentiated the rescuers from the non-rescuers was how their parents disciplined bad behavior and praised good behavior.
When the rescuers were asked to recall their childhoods and the discipline they received, researchers discovered that the word they most used was “explained.” The focus of their parents was on the Why behind their disciplinary action and the moral lesson or value to be learned, rather than on the discipline itself.
This practice conveyed the values their parents wanted to share while also encouraging critical thinking and reasoning. Grant notes that by explaining moral principles, the parents of those in the rescuer group had instilled in their children the importance of complying voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t.
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.
Another key to creating these moral standards that researchers found is praising behavior or character over the action itself. For example, in one study, children who were asked to be “helpers” instead of “to help” were more likely to clean up toys when asked. Similarly, adults who were asked “Please don’t be a cheater” cheated 50 percent less than those that were asked “Please don’t cheat.”
The same researcher suggests that we replace “Don’t Drink and Drive” with “Don’t Be a Drunk Driver.”
It turns out that values are far more effective than rules at eliciting the outcomes and behaviors that we want. In either a family or an organization, it is virtually impossible to cover all possible rules or monitor the adherence to them. Doing so would create a lengthy process manual or a draconian set of guidelines.
I’ve observed that highly successful families, organizations and companies select and focus on a few values that are most important to them. These aren’t token values that sit on the wall. They explain the Why behind those values to their group and regularly reinforce them, both in terms of accountability for not meeting the standard as well as celebrating decisions that are made which support those values.
These values can cover hundreds, if not thousands, of situations, far more than any set of rules could. Most importantly, people are encouraged to openly question decisions or actions that are incongruous with the values. Enforcement is not top down; it’s made by all the members of the group.
The individuals who acted bravely to save would-be victims of the Holocaust were never explicitly told to do that. It was following the values that were instilled and strengthened throughout their lives that brought them to a logical, courageous decision.
Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners and the author of the international bestselling book Performance Partnerships. Join 35,000 global leaders who follow his inspirational weekly Friday Forward or invite him to speak.
This article first appeared on Quora.