Values Schmalues! Are Corporate Values Just More Bullshit?

What do you think of the Values below? Good? Great?

Our Values

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.

Respect.  We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment.

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, then we won’t do it.

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.

To whom do you think they belong? Guess again? Yes, that’s right, Enron at the height of their powers.

Folk law has it that the person involved in drafting them had said “Why don’t they just say “to make as much money without going to prison?”” Had they adhered to that, they might have ended in a better place.

I’ve seen the same words posted in countless corporate receptions. Good companies with exceptional reputations and a really clear culture and other companies!

I don’t contend that values statements are meaningless. It’s what you do with them, how you use them operationally that counts. They need to be the mirror in front of which you periodically stand naked.

Culture will have a more decisive influence on behaviour than values. Your culture is your DNA, an expression of your real values are at work.

Yet culture is an emergent property.  Like a rainbow, it is a consequence of a number of occurrences.  This is explains why Values statements are so often seen.  It’s the organisations attempt to get a handle on and steer the culture in a positive direction.

So how can you use Values to create a point of shared understanding of “how we want to be” and as a tool to inform and influence the culture?

One of the problems of Values is that, to the honest person, they feel like aspirations. I know of few persons or companies who can say, with hand on heart, that they live their espoused values from moment to moment. But this is the point of them. Values statements need to be aspirational, something we reach for rather than something we are already attaining.

Tony Quinlan, an industry colleague reminded me of the value of stories in this kind of work. Stories create and transmit meaning. There are positive stories, to which we aspire. Then there are negative stories, from which we demur.

Honest work on values will frame them as “a work in progress”. They will explain that values are ways of sharing what is important to us. Eliciting and sharing positive and negative stories and examples make these lofty and abstract words real.

Imagine taking the lofty words and getting people to tell stories that exemplify this being done well and stories, which exemplify the opposite of this value.

If the latter negative stories make you nervous, don’t worry – they can be made up. They don’t have to pertain to real people and events. They can be representations of “how we don’t want to be”. There will be enough reality in them for people to get the point.

Corporate values are real and living in your organisation now, whether formally articulated or not. It makes sense to understand them and to move towards values that help you be who you want to be in the world.

There are many examples of organisations who use values meaningfully with the purpose of creating a coherent culture.  That’s the subject for another blog.

Had Enron stood naked in the mirror and bothered to honestly assess themselves against the espoused values, they may have taken a different path.