Confucius, Li and decency at work

Feb 05 2008 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

The challenge for many in their life at work is simply this: how to be a business person and a human being at the same time. How to compete yet cooperate, be hard-nosed yet be ethical, keep one's nose to the grindstone yet take time to see and acknowledge others, be professional yet personal, make a profit yet not be greedy. You get the picture.

We don't have to look far to discover folks whose life at work takes the low road. The media is replete with instances of individuals whose workplace demeanor is described as rude, insensitive, disrespectful, unethical, uncivil, egomaniacal and self-serving, not to mention greedy and dishonest.

You might rub elbows with one or more such folks on a daily basis. And all this despite the plethora of books, courses, seminars and workshops focusing on ethics and codes of conduct.

But there are also those whose lives at work are driven by their internal moral compass, who are guided by principles of decency, truth and integrity. These are folks who take the high road even when they face major challenges and difficult choices.

What supports them to change lanes and move from the low road to the high road is something Confucius expounded greatly on some 2,5000 years ago, the notion of "Li".

Li, what is it?

According to Confucius Li was a set of rites and rituals, a kind of code of conduct that focused on such things as learning, tea drinking, how to dress, mourning, governance and interaction with other humans.

The underlying notion of Li was how to be respectful of nature and of one another. The term Li has several meanings some of which are: propriety, reverence, courtesy, ritual or the ideal standard of conduct.

Li is what the sage uses to find that which is appropriate; it is both the means which sets the example for others, and the end which maximizes understanding, pleasure, and the greater good. In this way, the words and behaviors one uses to show respect for another are contained within the framework of Li.

As the practice of Li was continued through centuries, one central theme began to stand out ­ the natural tendency to be decent and kind towards one's fellow human beings.

Confucius believed that Li was the source of right action in all behavior ­ that living life from a place of respect for all others was at the heart of living a harmonious and worthwhile life.

Li, however, does not come to one's consciousness naturally. Li has to be cultivated. One must first learn and then practice the art of being in integrity, respecting the dignity of every human being and then become committed to, and disciplined in, the practice of Li.

Li in the workplace

The practice of Li runs the gamut from smiling at a co-worker, to holding a door open for another, to serving others, to being self-responsible, to questioning practices that are unethical, corrupt or demeaning of others.

Each behavior has a conscious focus and intentionality on working toward and supporting the well-being of the workplace, and those who work there.

The challenge in today's ego-driven workplaces is that Li has become a practice that is, for many, one of fakeness, phoniness, and convenience.

For those who have little regard for those around them, rudeness and selfishness have become guiding principles ­ interrupting in meetings, speaking over others, needing to be the first one on and off the elevator, not holding a door for another, not saying "please" and "thank you" – the list is endless.

In fact, the opposite of Li is "me" ­ i.e., rudeness, insensitivity, verbal abuse such as bullying, gossiping, and being disrespectful, and treating others as irrelevant.

Cultivating Li

The way to cultivate and practice Li at work begins with becoming conscious ­ asking one's self, "How am I behaving right here, right now?" "Am I taking an opportunity to allow my natural tendency to be decent, good and kind to arise?" "How am I showing up?" "Am I being authentic"?

Li is not surypy stuff. It's not fluff. It's not being effusive. It's not being fake or phony. It's not being patronizing. Li is being natural, honest, sincere, self-responsible and relaxed when we interact with another, any other.


  • Do resentment or greed drive your interactions with others?
  • How might you experience fear in your workplace? How do you act when you feel fearful?
  • Do you ever lie or stretch the truth?
  • Do you feel "white lies" are OK? Do you ever lie, cheat, or steal simply because it's convenient, because you can?
  • Are there others you admire because of their integrity, sincerity and authenticity?
  • Does you organization have a code of ethical conduct. Do you follow it? Do others?
  • What one or two things can you do to cultivate and practice Li at work?
  • Do you keep agreements?
  • Do you admit when you are wrong? Do you apologize for misdeeds?
  • Do you have a personal code of conduct? Do you follow it?
  • Do you recognize the dignity in others…all others?
  • Would folks at work (and at home and play) characterize you as a decent human being? Would you characterize yourself as a decent human being?
  • Do you ever react to others in a way that communicates to them they are irrelevant or irritants?

Practicing Li does not mean we stop being firm and assertive, stop holding others accountable, stop telling the truth or stop telling the bad news.

Practicing Li allows us to come from a place of internal truth and integrity that supports us to be forthright, confident, courageous, and authentic ­ without the edge that we might hitherto have used to shore ourselves up.

Confucius believed that in order to truly achieve the principles of Li, the character of the true person, one must look within oneself. Confucius tells us to "go inside" in a sense, when he says, "We know what is proper (li), especially in difficult situations, from the wisdom arising out of contemplation."

That means regularly going into self-reflection, inner listening, and sensing our gut to access our inner wisdom that leads us to right knowing, right understanding and right action.

Cultivating the practice of Li supports us to live our life at work from a place of self-responsibility, honesty, decency, integrity, strength, courage, and humaneness even when we feel it might be inconvenient.

Each of us is born with Li. Over time, however, we have lost our sense of it as we allowed (often unconsciously) life get in the way of being our true and real selves. Over time, our Li morphed into fake personalities, fake personas, and masks. In the process, we learned to navigate life, even life at work, with our eyes wide closed ­ reactive, fearful, resistant ­ losing our humanity and decency.

Li supports us to live life, even life at work, with our eyes wide open.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.