The Value Of Values

The Value Of Values In a recent blog, I questioned the value of Mission and Vision statements and suggested that, more often than not, they had little influence on an organisation’s performance, however that performance is measured.  I have much more time for Values statements but they have to meet certain criteria.

  • They should be specific to your organisation
  • The staff should have a role in their formulation
  • They should guide decision-making and behaviour at an individual and corporate level
  • They should be adhered to by everyone – no exceptions

My experience suggests that statements of Values “work” better with private companies than public ones, with SME’s rather than large corporations and where the values originate from the founder(s) of the company.  They tend not to work when they are the end result of a retreat attended by executive management as part of a campaign to bring about change in an organisation’s culture.

One of the best known statements of Values was the one enunciated by Thomas Watson Sr, the founder of IBM.  His Basic Beliefs were:

  • Excellence in everything we do
  • Superior customer service
  • Respect for the individual

However, even these Basic Beliefs had a use-by date.  Their pervasiveness led to an internal focus on the Company to the extent that IBM management lost touch with the external realities of changing customer needs.  “Excellence in everything we do” led to an obsession with perfection and handicapped new product commercialisation; “superior customer service” came to mean nothing more than the servicing of IBM hardware and software at the client’s premises and “respect for the individual” meant that anyone could veto a course of action, no matter how well supported by others, simply because one didn’t agree with it.  It was left to Lou Gerstner, the saviour of IBM, to develop a new set of values that were ultimately to be condensed into just three words – Win, Execute, Team.

The most critical criterion of all is the last one – if you are going to develop a values statement everyone has to abide by it, particularly executive management.  If any member of the executive management engages in behaviour that is at odds with the set of Values – and is not brought to account – a credibility gap is created as it appears to the rest of the organisation that there is one set of rules for them and another for us.

I recall a friend of mine who worked with a large organisation that had recently developed a set of Values.  He only began to suspect that his days in the organisation were numbered when a colleague drew his attention to a job advert in the Financial Review which bore an uncanny resemblance to his own.  He confronted his boss who was relatively new to the company and with whom he had had some disagreements and his boss confirmed what my friend suspected.  He went to the HR Manager to voice his disgust at his boss’ actions and was met with indifference.  Both the HR Manager and his boss had failed to act in accordance with the company’s Values statement.

In such circumstances, it doesn’t take long before the value of Values is worthless.  I’m not suggesting for one moment that the organisation begins an inevitable descent into anarchy but what I am saying is that the positives that were to be generated by the Values statement will quickly turn to negatives.  As always, actions speak louder than words.


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