Do away with the corporate values statement?
On a recent leadership development course, with senior executives, I led a discussion on ‘integrity’. We started with trying to agree a definition – and there was considerable disagreement. Some argued it was relative, and that integrity was all about living in line with your values, beliefs, ethics and morals. Others argued that it was absolute, because otherwise Osama bin Laden was acting in integrity with his values on September 11th 2001.
So the debate went on until confusion reigned. Then I reminded them that one of their corporate values, emblazoned on their website and repeated all over their corporate materials, was ‘integrity’.
“Ahh, but that just means that we don’t break the law,” said one of the course participants.
Asked another: “Surely it means more than that?”
The truth was, they didn’t know.
For the better part of 20 years now, managers have been told it is good practice to “manage by values”. They’ve been told that being a values-led organisation leads to stronger customer and staff loyalty. They’ve been told to turn their businesses into flat, process-led, customer-focused organisations in which constituent parts act according to a commonly shared vision and set of values.
The result is that every large business (and many smaller aspirants) has a ‘values statement’ of some form or other, created at some expense and communicated widely to staff at even greater expense. But ask an average staff member what it is, and you’d be lucky to find one who could identify it.
Because the executives on that course did not really understand what their company meant when it said ‘integrity’ was one of its values, some had assumed it was simply abiding by the law. My experience is that such misunderstandings are not uncommon.
This difference in interpretation completely ruins any company’s chance of living in line with its value statement. The statement becomes meaningless, and there is no clear understanding of how to enact and embody its values. In these circumstances people continue on, making decisions as they did before, without really consulting or considering the values statement.
This creates a gulf between the espoused values statement and the embodied values of the organisation. This difference can be called the ‘bullshit factor’. The truth is most people can generally rate their company’s bullshit factor. A good indicator is whether or not people snigger when you bring up the company’s values in discussion.
A way forward?
Yet most companies do, in fact, fulfil their values a lot of the time. This is not due to any real effort on their behalf, but because their values reflect the values of the vast majority of the people who work there, and those people, like most people in the world, try to live according to their values.
Most of the time it’s easy to live according to our values. In our day to day lives, we can get through most of the decisions we have to make without having to really think about or question our values.
This is not embodying a value – this is just running on our standard programming from childhood that teaches us good manners and how to behave.
When we come to a clash of values, or we see that living our values and making a profit do not lead to the same decision, or where holding our values means openly disagreeing with a customer or client – in these moments we are faced with the difficulty of actually embodying values. When we have a global company and understand that values mean different things in different cultures, and that some values will clash with some cultures – then we are facing what it means to embody values.
This is a leadership development issue. How many leaders in an organisation have been trained in how to deal with the complexities of value-based decision making? How many leadership or executive development programmes specifically train participants in how to ‘embody values’? In my experience, very few.
Exceptional leaders, from what I have seen, do have the ability to make values-based decisions and to manage this complexity. However this is not just something that you’re born with – one can be trained in it, if organisations are prepared to put the effort into doing so.
Any such training programme would begin by reaching a shared understanding about what the values actually mean, for that company, so that employees can behave in accordance with them, whilst acting on behalf of the company.
Participants would need to engage with an understanding of what it means to really live these values. In particular, they would have to engage with the dilemmas and difficult decisions that are required of them as leaders. This takes practice, and any good leadership development programme should be providing this practice.
The results of these programmes are organisations where employees are fully engaged, where they feel strongly about their organisation’s values, and where they can really be fully passionate about its products and services. This is what we all say we want in our organisations – the question is: are we really willing to do what it takes?
If a company isn’t prepared to put its money where its mouth is and train managers and staff in what it means to behave according to their espoused values, I would argue that the company is better off not espousing those values. An empty statement on a wall or a website generates only cynicism and resignation amongst staff, and customers certainly notice the result of such a cultural malaise.
These companies would be better to take down those statements and say, proudly: “We’re here to make money. Oodles of it.” At least then they would be acting with integrity.