Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Value of Values

Values, everyone has them whether they’re written down or not. Some are negative and some are positive. It’s belief in them that gives them credibility and establishes their value. Where a mission statement defines a company’s purpose, it is the values that help define the behaviours it wants exhibited in order to achieve the mission. Companies can spend ridiculously large sums of money defining, documenting and displaying their values. They’re often quick to capitalise both internally to staff and externally to their market, when they (usually senior management or executives) are displaying those carefully crafted values. Yet it’s interesting to observe how much faster they are to minimise, possibly even ignore, when they’re not. Dare I suggest these often very expensive values only have value when it suits?

Some readers may be quick to point out a touch of cynicism and I’m not about to deny that may be the case, just as I always say ‘No’ as my starting position when negotiating a scope change to a project. Seriously though, how many times have you seen a list of values so lovingly laminated and proudly displayed in the corridors, inconsistently applied? What of those unwritten and unacknowledged values? Those that support ‘when it suits me’ or ‘subject to my agenda being satisfied’. Why aren’t they included on the list? If values are, and I quote “judgements about what is important” and “along with worldview and personality, they generate behaviour”, then surely along with the positive we should also include the more negative or perhaps controversial ones. After all one persons negative could be another’s positive and not everything can be fabulous all the time.

A recent discussion about a company that changed one of their value statements from openness and integrity to honesty with integrity suggested a need to change behaviours. Basically everyone was being far too open and there was potential for people to know too much. I can see how this can be a bit dangerous for a company, particularly when it comes to moles or leaks who like nothing better than to pass information on to those who shouldn’t have it. The change they made may have meant ‘we’ll be honest about the stuff we do say, we just won’t say everything’. Well, at least that’s honest and tells everyone where things stand.

Values are about creating a culture and environment of desired behaviours and the value comes when they are believed by those on the receiving end. Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes in her blog post “Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values” for the Harvard Business Review, “it's not the words that make a difference; it's the conversation”. The behaviours experienced consistently every single day without exception must support a company’s defined values, be part of all conversations and generate belief.

If that leads to values being listed along the lines of:
  • Keeping everyone in the dark, ie: Fear
  • Expecting loyalty while giving none in return, ie: Selfishness
  • Following the 'do as I say' model, not the 'do as I do' one, ie: Double-standards
  • Always being unavailable particularly when difficult decisions are required, ie: Invisible
at least be honest about it. Look at what is on the values list and challenge it. Make the list real. If an organisation wants to:
  • Change the culture
  • Be a great place to work
  • Develop loyal customers
spending mega-bucks to refresh the values list is probably not the answer and will likely cost a packet. Far more can be achieved by simply matching the spoken and written word with everyday actions. Take a leaf out of The Undercover Boss TV program – get out of the office, mix with the troops on the ground, and find out how those beautifully branded and laminated lists are really being applied. Whether the experience results in personnel changes, training, coaching, or the type of wobbly only a 4 year old in a supermarket can have, it’d be worth it. Employees are the ones who will vote with their feet when a company’s values don’t match their own. They lose faith, stop believing and feel they’re compromising their personal values.

Don’t run the risk of losing excellent, dedicated, knowledgeable employees. Value the values and whatever makes the list, be honest about them and in action with them at all times!


  1. I fully agree, it seems "values" is the new management speak that needs to be applied to exec teams and "passed down through the company". Like innovation and customer experience, actions are needed, rather than the words.

    The best example about at present of what you are saying is BP:

    Their values vs their actions seem to highlight major contradictions : Environment and external relationships ?

  2. Thanks for joining in. It's a shame isn't it, when external relationships is generally interpreted as "shareholders" and environment is "good so long as we can get something out of it". Poor BP - will they ever recover? Yup they will, just like every other corporate nightmare that's gone before them.

    What surprises me is that people, we the general public and employees, still seem to be surprised when a company's values are not consistent with their actions. Are we all naive or do we really still believe in the value of trust?