Organisations spend a lot of time talking about values. They spend less time exploring their use in practice. The most dangerous for corporate values is rarely an attack on the heart of a value. Corporate values collapse not because of direct attack but by creeping conflict at the edges that create a culture of corruption.
Values – Easy to Say. Harder to Do.
Announcing a new set of corporate values is a remarkably common corporate action, particularly in a transformation or after a crisis. Senior executives, boards and regulators feel more secure when there is a clear standard of the values endorsed by the organisation. However, we always have the stark reminder of Enron’s fine values statement to be reminded that the practice of values matters more than the words.
Values are easy to say but hard to do, because the first thing that happens once they are announced is that they become inconvenient. If values don’t drive choices and action, they aren’t values. As John Stewart famously said:
If you don’t stick to your values when they’re inconvenient, they’re hobbies, not values.
Values are also hard because often organisations find that the values feel like they are in conflict in common scenarios. What do we do if ‘collaboration’ and ‘accountability’ feel like they are in conflict in a scenario? Because values are often imposed and much rarely discussed, employees can find these situations difficult to resolve, even when they are aware of the values and seeking to follow them. One of the benefits of having a strong organisation culture of storytelling is to help embed one word values into practical guides for decision making in situations like this. In a story, collaboration and accountability have specific meanings in context and usually can be resolved based on the past practices of the organisation & its cultural expectations.
Fraying at the Edges
Resolving these conflicts and other edge cases is important in organisational culture. Values don’t like compromise. The point of declaring some values as pre-eminent should not be to then trade them away when matters become difficult.
The worst corruption of values in organisations is never a direct attack on a corporate value. If the value is real and embedded, The culture of the organisation will usually push back on a direct attack. The sneaky corruption is the gradual erosion of inconvenient values at the edges. Every single time an employee excuses a minor variation from values or a policy or process is created without consideration of the values then no matter how convenient that choice, it is a threat to the future effectiveness of the values. Employees take their lead on values not from posters but from practice. All of those frayed edges are a signal of what matters and what doesn’t.
Senior executives are usually the worst at fraying the edges of values. They have power and status. They have fewer voices to question their decisions. They are busy and important and not prone to stop and ponder inconveniences. Their actions are highly public. When that senior executive stops and says ‘Just this once I will order a limousine in breach of the expense policy, because I really need to get to that flight’, they send a signal that integrity can be traded away for convenience.
To prevent fraying, organisations need a rich ongoing conversation about values that is full of stories, debates and practical examples. The values need to be embedded in employee practice and encompass all of the employees, even the most senior. Most importantly of all, conflicts of values or fraying at the edges should be areas of great concern and common topics of discussion. Treat fraying at the edges as as much a cause of concern as corruption, because that is where corruption starts.