5 tests to see if your organisation's values are bogus
You’ve probably had the ‘values’ treatment. Suddenly, parachuted out of HR, comes a few abstract nouns, or worse, an acronym, stating that the organisation now has some really important ‘values’. Even worse, an external agency may have juiced them up. I genuinely like organisations that have a strategy, purpose, even a mission. But the current obsession with organisational values I don't entirely buy.
Try this authenticity test to your company values. Sniff out the hubris and bullshit.
Test 1: Bad acronyms - values created to fit word
If your values are an acronym, they’re likely to be inauthentic. The net result of fuzzy thinking is so often the ‘bad acronym’. Chances are that someone has shoehorned some abstract nouns into a word that sounds vaguely positive, completely losing sight of the original intention. Are they telling you that their values ‘just happened’ to fall into that acronym? Actually, what happens is that at least some of the values emerge from the acronym. That's inauthentic.
How about this from a Cheshire voluntary group: FLUID: Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. Or another real example of a crap acronym: VALUE: This HR person actually went online as she could only think of Value Added….. and wanted others to fill the acronym out! They did, and she was delighted with, Value Added Local, User friendly Experience. What a load of puff. When values are created to fit a word you want to say, it’s a joke. Even worse is the use of middle letters, rendering the acronym, as an aide memoire, completely useless. Here’s a real example. It’s a cracker. PEOPLE: Positive Spirit and Fun, HonEsty and Integrity, Opportunties Based on Merit, Putting the Team first, Lasting value for Clients and People, Excellence through Professionlism. One overlong, impossible to remember acronym with eleven nouns, and I love the way they have to use the ‘E’ in the middle of HonEsty to make it work. This, by the way, is from an HR consultancy.
It’s not that I hate acronyms (Abbreviated Coded Rendition Of Name Yielding MeaningS). They’re great as memorable cues. For example, I rather like ABC (Airways, Breathing, Circulation) in first aid. I also have a soft spot for funny acronyms, such as ALITALIA (Airplane Lands In Turin And Luggage In Ancona), BAAPS (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon) unbelievably a real organisation, and DIMWIT (Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Talking).… it’s just that I’m a fully paid up member of the AAAA, the Association Against Acronym Abuse. And let's just quietly forget Microsoft's 'Critical Update Notification Tool'.
Test 2: Negative test
Lists of values are often so obvious that they are hardly worth mentioning. Sure, you can say we all need to be 'Customer friendly' and so on. But who would say that being Customer unfriendly was ever on the cards? The ‘negation’ test is a useful filter. Ask whether any normal human being would deny have the stated opposite or negative value. If the answer is NO, it’s not a value but a basic, common sense belief. Human nature is a complex thing and people are too different to be corralled into value sets. Beware of BIG words like integrity, imagination, creativity, innovation…… If your values are simplistic platitudes – no one will care.
Test 3: Are they really values?
A value is something that determines a moral decision. Yet many organizational ‘values’ are not values at all. ‘Imagination’, for example, is not a moral value, neither, I would argue is 'Creativity'. I’m not sure that ‘Leadership’ is an intrinsic value, in the sense that Pol Pot was a leader. So, for this test, look at each value in turn and ask whether it really is a value or activity, competence or other thing?
Test 4: Diversity problem
There’s something odd about having diversity as a value within a non-diverse, fixed value set. Empirically, people have different sets of values. We know this from large-scale studies, such as the World Values Survey, going since 198, in over 100 countries. An organisation is likely to have a mix of nationalities and cultures; religious, secular, liberal, conservative, individualistic, communal. Imposing a single set of values from above may not fit with this diversity of cultures and values. If diversity of values matters, the imposition of a set of fixed values makes little sense. To live with diversity is to live with a diversity of values.
Test 5: Sniff test
It’s usually quite easy to expose the hypocrisy of an organisation that exhorts ‘values’ by looking at its a) tax affairs b) senior staff salaries, c) senior staff bonuses d) customer list e) behaviours. If the company plays the tax avoidance game using offshore tax arrangements, or transfer pricing – that’s almost every large tech company, Starbucks etc. etc. then you can stick their ‘do no evil’ values back in the hypocrisy box. If the CEO earns a ridiculous amount of money but doesn’t pay a living wage to the people at the bottom, the value of their values is nil. To be more precise, if your company pays the CEO way more than x10 the salary of the lowest member of staff – question the values. If, as a bank or other organisation, you’ve missold, ripped people off and generally fiddled the markets, ripped off suppliers, don’t pay on time - don’t talk about values. I've worked in public, educational organisations and heard people rail against the private sector, while they send their kids to private schools - that's BS. Read Nagel's Equality and Partiality. It doesn't take long to work out that people's stated public values are often different from their personal values. The same with organisations. You get the idea. Subject your organisation to a sniff test. Take the values and really ask – of the people who have told you that they matter – whether they’re applied at the top of the organisation and in its financial dealings.
Ask the person in the street if large organisations have served society well in terms of values? Banks? Supermarket chains? Tax dodging tech companies? Tax dodging retailers like Next or Starbucks? Football organisations like FIFA? Football clubs in general? Athletics organisations? Political parties? Mobile hacking newspapers? Saville infested broadcasters? No. We have a crisis of values, caused by large organisational hubris and lobbying. They are the last place we, as people, look to for values. The ‘values’ obsession is just another example of overreach by HR. It keeps them occupied and gives everyone the sense that moral purpose has been served. It may even mask the reality of selfish behaviour. When I hear people discuss values, or see ‘values’ training, it’s like little-league religion. Lots of back-slapping and ‘aren’t we great’ type platitudes. We’re all different. It’s work not a moral crusade. To be honest, I find it all a bit hokey and patronising. A select group at the top come up with 'values' and we all have to march in step to those values, even though, as most of us know, the further up an organisation you go, the more rarified values become. People have values, organisations don’t.