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  • Writer's pictureAbby

The Trouble With Having Values

Hands up, who works for, or has worked for, an organisation that has organisational values? Like mission statements and vision statements, company values are a well rehearsed currency in the corporate and charitable world. Even if you haven’t worked under them, you will probably have seen them emblazoned across a company website, their annual report, a slide deck at an event. They’re everywhere. And a lot of the time they seem really positive. Who could dislike an organisation that values (to pick a handful of likely sounding words) integrity, innovation, perseverance, compassion and excellence?

I once worked for an organisation that ‘did values’ really well. When I joined there were maybe 50 or 60 employees and they had recently undergone a value choosing exercise. The words the staff team came up with were ones that were close to the hearts of the people who already worked there, they were common behaviours already seen in the organisation. So as a new person coming in I could see these values being lived in the way the organisation already ran. They felt live and present. They were so well embedded in organsational practice that they felt less like a mould you had to fit than a set of words that described the majority of the people who worked there and how they worked together. The values therefore were shorthand for articulating who we were, useful both in recruitment and developing relationships with other partners. Those who joined were ‘people like us’ – they were recruited in part because they fitted quite naturally with the existing character of the organisation. This aided harmony and togetherness.

I suspect organizational size and timing might have something to do with it. The closer people are to the heart of the values setting process the more they “fit the mould” – but as the second law of thermodynamics tells us, these things are harder to keep a hold of the further they get away from the point of creation. Add to this the fact that most organisations are like the ship of Theseus, the company number remains the same but the personnel gradually change, and organisational value entropy seems even more likely. Slow, but likely.

Values were really, erm, well valued, in the earliest years of their use at that workplace. But the more I think on organisational values, the more problems are exposed:

The way they’re developed is more important than what they are

I was speaking recently with a colleague in a different organisation to my own, on the topic of organisational strategies.* He offered me the wisdom ‘the process of developing your strategy is your strategy’. I believe the same applies to your organisational values. How you go about developing your organisational values says a lot about what your values really are. The employer I mentioned earlier had valuable values precisely because they were developed and owned by everyone. I’ve seen other organisations impose their values from above: “This is how you should behave” and their power was massively diminished. They represented management’s aspiration, not necessarily who the staff body was or wanted to be. Buy in is lower, the values become nothing more than a marketing tool, internally as well as externally.

It limits your gene pool

I suggested earlier that “fit” with the organisational values often is used as a yardstick against which to measure candidates for recruitment. This massively diminishes the diversity of voices in the room, and in so doing removes perspectives and approaches that could be enormously beneficial. It’s like the problem of women not being involved in design processes for products and practices that are intended to be unisex – a subject covered magnificently in the book “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado-Perez. The cost of neglecting those voices is poorer a quality output precisely because the pool of ideas is halved and the ideas risk only working to their full potential for around 50% of the population. With company values, if you’re recruiting employees who are like you, who knows what personalities and ideas you could be missing out on.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the problem with our biases towards people who are ‘like us’ with regards to things like gender, ethnicity, beliefs, sexuality and so on. I find it highly unlikely that our cultural biases don’t attach some words to certain demographics more than others. Imagine a company whose values included “bossy”…

They shoehorn people into a mould

Values effectively codify behaviours. They set expectations about the kind of person you’re meant to be in your workplace. What if you find yourself in a workplace which decides to value innovation, but that’s simply not how your brain works? You could be the most effective person in the room when it comes to implementing tried and tested ‘it ain’t broke’ practices but in a drive to fit the company mould you’re expected to come up with something newer and shinier instead.

Some people are most effective when they’re left to work on their own terms, but if the company values ‘collaboration’ or (that old chestnut) ‘teamwork’, they might find themselves working in a way that makes them less effective and, worse, unhappy. What the company values becomes how people are valued as individuals. To maintain your perceived worth you must be someone that you are not. By expecting everyone to be the same, organisations lower the perceived worth of their individuality.

They are open to abuse

There’s a darker side to this too. In the worst case scenario company values can be abused to the detriment of the individual. I have known it happen. Let’s take an example - maybe one of your core values is ‘resilience’. A cynic might see this as an excuse to beat people over the head with the organizational values if they’re not feeling particularly resilient, or, worse, permit challenging behaviour. Can’t take that poorly delivered negative feedback? That’s your problem, suck it up, be more resilient! Perhaps one of your values is ‘teamwork’ (as so many of them are) – you want to finish work at a reasonable hour but you’re thrown an urgent piece of work at the last minute. Buck up your ideas, it’s time for some teamwork!

I’m presenting values in their worst possible light partly for effect; some organisations may have found ways of using organisational values while circumventing some or all of the above. If so I’d love to hear how. But at the heart of all this I have to question: What are values actually for? Are they a marketing tool? A way of aligning staff around a way of working and being? A way of selecting who ‘fits’? And ultimately, what is the value of organisational values in the shadow of the challenges I’ve outlined above?


*This quote came courtesy of Graeme at Active Partnerships. He too has a blog – lots of food for thought for other system change enthusiasts.

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