Ah Values. Those intangible yet desirable qualities that embellish websites, pepper strategy documents and are emblazoned across corporate promotional materials the World over.
Nowadays values are just words. We don’t measure them, we just expect people to have them. We don’t tell people what they mean, we just expect them to know. Often their absence is when they are most salient. In a nutshell, values aren’t really valued.
It’s a long time since any kind of imposed moral code or standard could be expected to be universally upheld either willingly or by peer pressure (normally a combination of the two). Yet this is what we seem to expect when we try to impart on employees, in the style of the Ten Commandments, exactly how they’re supposed to behave. It’s a concept we’ve been wrangling with for a very long time, yet we still haven’t managed to pin it down. We might consider that as morality appears to slide we need a value behaviour code more than ever. Of course it doesn’t work like that.
Over two and a half thousand years the Ancient Greeks had a set of virtues that wouldn’t look out of place on the wall of big corporation today. Although they’re probably actually better. Nowadays we’re faced with almost an endless list of traits employees are expected to display. The Ancient Greeks generally accepted there were just five – courage, moderation, piety, wisdom and justice. The great philosophers, such as Socrates and Plato, believed that wisdom was the most important of these and dedicated their lives to discovering how these virtues were obtained. It was believed at the time that the virtues were the route to happiness and therefore they were pretty important stuff.
When I try to think of the purpose of values in modern times I can only think of one thing – promotion. It’s part of how an organisation gets across what it’s about. A customer might glance at the poster hanging in reception, but it’s whether, and how, those values are brought to life that really counts. If they’re treated well, they don’t equate that with the company living up to it’s values. Conversely if they’re treated badly it turns that poster into a gold-plated lie. And this is almost impossible to avoid because human behaviour is difficult to control.
A typical response to this quandary is to supplement the values with a list of behaviours and try to undertake monitoring. These can have the same problem as values in that they’re an over simplification that boils something complicated down to an either/or question. For example, a value of “honesty” assumes someone either has it or they don’t. In reality there’s a continuum with an extreme at either end between which people fall. Along the continuum there are also numerous different bands of ranges of behaviour acceptable to different people and groups. None of which is measurable. Then again, it’s pretty much a societal norm that we expect honesty from those we deal with, particularly organisations, whether it’s written in a set of values or not. I think the vast majority of values are similarly “no brainers”.
So where does that leave us? Socrates believed that practice of the virtues was developed by knowledge of them, which in turn arose from discussion and questioning. It’s not a theory that’s been borne out by practice but I certainly think there was something in the idea. The most effective value and behaviour frameworks I’ve known have come directly from the employees themselves and what they see as important. They can then create their own meaning and ultimately (hopefully) the values and the culture are actually the same thing.
So are values valuable? As living breathing behaviours they most certainly are. But as words on a piece of paper? Probably not.