What is the value of business values and do they really matter?

Values receive much attention in the public debate on corporate and institutional conduct. Lapses of values are cited as the root cause of transgressions, instilling values as a remedy, and strong values as an enduring form of protection. Values were mentioned 23 times a day during the recent Standing Committee on Economics testimony from CEOs of the big four banks.

Most large organisations have defined values that enshrine the ideals their leaders hold as central to success. The number (generally between four and eight) and the form of expression (generally a noun and a ‘tag’ line) vary from organisation to organisation.

Displayed on the intranet, in the foyer and on the screen saver, they are there for all to see.

So what happens inside a business that allows sales incentives to develop that, upon reflection, diverge from public expectations? How does a gap form between the cover a consumer thinks they have purchased and the reality of the claim process? What precipitates major organisations getting caught in scandals ranging from fraudulent sales behaviour, to environmental reporting, to the trade in ivory?

Outcomes such as these are not the result of isolated values failures or individual lapses of judgement. Rather they are symptomatic of a broader failure of the values themselves. They demonstrate that the values are not practiced by the organisation at large.

“The value of a value is in its use solving an organisations most pressing issues” #FonsTrompenaars.

Leaders’ efforts to define values for their organisations (though well intentioned) are central to the failure of values. Centrally defined values, no matter how well conceived, are not ‘owned’ by the rank and file of the organisation. Broadcasting values from the top of the organisation, no matter how well communicated and reinforced, renders passive the recipients of the message.

To have power people must be actively engaged.

Developing ‘living’ values

Values fail an organisation when they are centrally defined and not used by those in the organisation to solve issues. So how do we move from passive consumption of centrally defined values, to values that are lived in the organisation? How can the leaders ensure that values are relevant to the issues facing their large heterogeneous organisations?

Part of the answer is not trying to provide all the answers. In order to fully engage with values people need space (figuratively and literally) to co-create the story. I am reminded of the ‘incremental housing’ movement which builds disaster victims half a house (literally). By focusing on core services (water, power, insulation) and providing housing recipients space to extend their (1/2) house in a way that meets their own requirements, the value of aid investment is maximised, social capital increased and local employment supported

In the same way leaders should provide the core infrastructure and the space for teams and individuals to co-create values that are directly relevant to the issues they confront day-to-day. With the right core ‘infrastructure’ guidelines the values that emerge from this process will likely align with leaders’ initial ideas (if there is a gap the emergent values are probably an improvement). Moreover, everyone engaged in the process will feel commitment to and ownership of the values.

Done right this process can generate a surge of organisational energy. Before embarking on co-creating values leaders should consider the core infrastructure carefully: what is non-negotiable, setting the context correctly, and how best to engage the organisation. They have a plan for engaging the passion such a process can unleash.

Once engaged people will expect change – the leader’s role becomes one of clearing impediments that stop the organisation realising co-created values. This is surely a better problem to confront than trying to get people to engage at all!

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