Saturday, April 29, 2017

Scrap your company values and replace with 'Don't be a dick!'... the rest is hubris

A brief conversation with a young woman, in the queue for lunch at a corporate ‘values’ day, opened my eyes up to the whole values thing in organisations. “I have my values,” she said, “and they’re not going to be changed by a HR department.... I’ll be leaving in a couple of years and no doubt their HR will have a different set of values… which I’ll also ignore”. Wisest thing I heard all day.
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 expensive 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 buy.
I also chaired a Skills Summit last month, where innumerable HR folk paraded their company values with the usual earnestness. An endless stream of abstract nouns, all of which seemed like things any normal human being would want in any context, in or out of work - you know the words - integrity, innovation, honesty, community....  After a full day of this stuff I was impressed by the guy who ran a small, successful software company, who stood at the podium, and claimed that his company didn't really have any stated values but felt that the whole 'values' thing could be replaced by one phrase 'Don't be a dick!". All company values can be substituted by this one phrase. The rest is hubris....  

Bullshit Bingo
Having dealt with hundreds of large organisations for more than 30 years, I have yet to find one whose values were anything more than platitudes. They are invariably a crude mixture of reactive PR, HR overreach and the crude selection from a list of abstract nouns, sometimes into an idiotic acronym. In reality - even when masked by complex consultancy reports and training - it's almost always bullshit Bingo.
Why would we imagine that HR have any skills in this area? In what sense are they 'experts' in values? For me, it is a utopian view of work and organisations. I can remember the day when organisational 'value' lists never existed. People were more honest and realistic about expectations. They came in when HR suddenly decided that they had to look after our emotional and moral welfare - always a rather ridiculous idea.
The banks were full of this 'values' culture. I worked with most of them. It was all puff and PR. People do not, and don't, buy into this stuff. They can barely recall what the values are. I have values and I'm not interested in what HR, or some external consultant, says my values should be. The even more ridiculous idea that people who don't adopt those values should be forced out is wrong and illegal.
The problem here was a shift when HR started to become the people who protected the company against their own employees - that, for example, is what compliance training is largely about - ticking boxes in case of insurance and fines. They dress this up in ‘values’ documents but few remember them and even fewer care.... The really interesting thing about 'values' in my experience is that those companies who felt most compelled to get them identified - banks, accountancies, consultancies, tech companies, pharma companies etc. - were the very companies where they were most ignored. In fact, they were counterproductive as the employees all knew they were a scam, designed to 'police' them. 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 set is an acronym, they’re likely to be inauthentic. The net result of fuzzy HR 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 bullshit.
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're engaging in an infantile exercise that treats employees like infants. 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. PEOPLEPositive 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 OName 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: Alliteration test
You hear alliterative value lists all the time  - 'Imagination, Integrity, Innovation' (two organisations I know have this one set, clearly having cribbed it from the internet, or lists of 'C' words such as creativity, curiosity and collaborative. These are far too conveniently alliterative for my liking. The world is not intrinsically alliterative and if your list of values all start with the same letter - it's forced nonsense. 
Test 3: 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 having 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 4: 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 some other thing? 
Test 5: 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 1989, 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. At the Skill Summit, some companies seemed to imply that if you didn't fit in with their imposed values, they'd try to get you out. Really? When values become reasons to sack people, you've got to worry. Even the phrase 'Don't be a dick' worries me. Companies often have dicks in the workplace. So what? Lot's of very competent and talented people are 'dicks'. Elon Musk is a dick. Steve Jobs was a dick. Gates was a dick. Get over it. We're all different.
Test 6: 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, Google, Apple, Amazon, Starbucks etc. etc. then add hypocrisy to their values. 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 even mention 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. 
In truth, everyone knows that values are actually marketing exercises, used by organisations as slogans. They have little to do with actual behaviour in organisations. They infantilise people, reduce them to ciphers. 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? Energy companies?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.


zeph said...

I agree. I do think each participant should know what guides an organization towards achieving its goals, and that way each participant can deterimine if their personal values align or are in opposition. I guess if you stay with an organization even though you disagree with the way things are run, then what you truly value is keeping your job, and alignment occurs if the company wants to keep you in it.

Phil H said...

Sometimes even the acronyms might be memorable. I remember one from 20 years ago - PACT. I don't remember it for what it stood for. I remember it because a mystery parcel turned up on every desk on launch day. The box had a pyramid inside with the four sides adorned with acronym. And it had a use - as a magnetic holder of paper clips (supplied too). First thought in the morning: what shall I do with this then? 90% sat it on their PC and fired it up. Result? Several hundred calls to the IT Helpdesk asking why their hard drives seemed to have been wiped? Since my values include making work fun at least some of the time, this all aligned quite well for me.