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Your organisational values are a fantasy

Values are an important aspect of your organisation but any exercise should start off by understanding what values your organisation is currently living by
— OSC

I (Roger) recently spent an hour of my life in a meeting refining and understanding the stated values of a particular organisation. The major outcome I achieved personally, along with everyone else, was that I emerged from the session an hour older. Values, along with mission and vision [see Strategy as vague utopian statements] are key aspects of the LeadershiT industry and often take a great deal of attention which, ironically, adds little value.

When I’m teaching strategy and we wander off course and into the area of values I ask my students, “Is there anyone here who doesn’t have personal values?” I’m usually greeted with polite (or nervous) laughter. They all recognise that it’s a dumb question because everyone has values. It’s part of being human.

My next question is, “Okay then, how many people have their personal values framed and proudly displayed on the wall at home?” More laughter. It’s another dumb question.

“Why not?”

This question is greeted with silence. I let them off the hook by continuing, “because you’re not as dumb as a sack of hammers.” Summarising your values in five neat and tidy words is a task that I think isn’t possible. Values are the internal reference points that underpin who we are as people and impacts on everything we do both consciously and, importantly, sub or unconsciously. Honesty, for example, is a very limited English word that is highly subjective and contextual.

Why then does exercise make apparent sense in a complex environment populated with radically different individuals? Text books will tell you that it helps organisations identify its culture and beliefs. It might do if the exercise was done “honestly” but it’s usually an exercise in describing the organisation we wish we were and nothing remotely like reality. You don’t fool anyone, especially your staff, when you claim your organisation is as nimble as a gazelle when everyone knows it moves like a hippopotamus, and an old one at that.

Here’s the most famous examples of a company presenting to their staff (and the rest of the world), what they would like to be. The following are Enron’s company values:

  • RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.  We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don't belong here.
  • INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won't do it.
  • COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another...and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.
  • EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

The key point is that every organisation, just like the people within it, has values though they are unlikely to be the aspirational and generic ones that are nailed on the wall. I hope you, like us at Other Side Consultants, can see the irony in organisations that have honesty as a value.

Values are important but they have been hi-jacked by the LeadershiT industry and they run the risk of becoming as meaningless as the term “friend” on FaceBook. They have become a checkbox task often weirdly associated with the setting of strategy . You don’t review your values when you are contemplating changing jobs unless, perhaps, you’re heading over to join the fighting in the Middle East.

A colleague, who has studied ethics, pointed out that values are the mechanism that describes how you act and behave 100 percent of the time. No excuses, no ambiguity. And they seldom, if ever, change. That’s quite a large commitment!

Roger McEwanComment