Organisational values in the 21st century – laminated or lived?

Have our values deserted us?

I don’t know about you but opening the papers, watching the news, reading a blog (hopefully not this one), scanning the web is really rather depressing these days.  There seems little going on where decent human behaviour is being exercised. It seems everyone is trying to get one over someone else. This is seen at the most macro level of geo-politics, business being conducted in a less than honourable manner and sport being “played” by bending the rules beyond acceptable limits. Why is this, what has happened? Have we lost our moral compass, do we no longer have any guiding values or principles unless it is tagged with some currency symbol? Or is it that not much has changed apart from everything being so much more on show courtesy of 24/7 media?

The Concept of Values

When I started work in one of the UK’s major banks during the second-half of the 1970s, I don’t recall the topic of values being prominent. There was a sense of respecting almost three centuries of Quaker tradition. One word I recall was “probity”. This was made relevant to banking by helping establish capital and loan to deposit ratios. How quaint! Yet, now, organisations seem to be vying with each other as to which has the most eye-snapping way of promoting their values.

Frank Clayton, Head of L&D at N.G. Bailey, a family owned mechanical and electrical engineering firm gave me the wonderful headline to this short article. It is such a marvellous question to pose. A recent personal experience at my local NHS Hospital in Suffolk confirms its fundamental truth. It seemed every vertical surface was adorned with posters and notices about the hospital’s values. Yet they were in short supply in the manner of treatment meted out. The £165k pa Chief Executive exhibited few, if any, of his institution’s values in his response to my complaint (he now runs two hospitals!).

My first experience with values being explicitly imposed occurred in the 1990s. The London-based head office of the bank issued its new corporate values.  The regions were instructed to “adopt and comply”. This raised eye-brows in my home city of Liverpool where I had returned to work. We translated the corporate-ese into Scouse vernacular. They began to mean something to everyone. That was an important lesson about involving and engaging people in making change work.

Twenty years later, I reflect in the dark shadow cast by all the banks’ PPI mis-selling scandal that those values made little impact upon the business’ sales practices. I feel very awkward, guilty perhaps (see Joseph E. Stiglitz’s “The Price of Inequality“) about my leadership contribution to that situation. Over in the US, another bank has been justifiably hauled over the coals for opening additional accounts for customers unknowingly to them. This “performance success” saw staff rewarded with billions of dollars in bonuses; see this Forbes Magazine article.

Values as Part of our Personality

Our behaviour as humans, as leaders, is considerably influenced by the psychological dimensions of our personality. How these are driven by the complex brew of physics, chemistry and biology that occurs in our brains is gradually being uncovered. For the time being, I see three measurable facets to our personalities:

  • your traits or predispositions, i.e. what you are naturally inclined to do, e.g. the Big 5 Theory of Personality Traits. They’re summarised by the mnemonic “OCEAN” or “CANOE”
  • your motives – what you enjoy doing. Here, I’m guided by UK National Teaching Fellow, Brian Smith, who observes that person A can’t motivate person B to do anything but can inspire them to motivate themselves to do so. The strap-line on Brian’s web-site, is “Inspire, Motivate, Achieve”. I like that, in three short words, it says so much.
  • your values – what you believe in and consider important. I recall a friend and colleague talking about their GP saying, “What I do is important but I hate it; I’m 3rd generation GP and here under coercion”.
Knowledge Transfer Partnership

I’ve worked with lots of instruments that “measure” the first two, some less clearly and effectively than others. In the realm of values, there seems less choice. Roger Steare’s splendid work with “moral DNA” is a positive exception. However, does it help answer the fundamental question of how an organisation operates in line with its expensively “laminated” values?

A research programme between University of Essex and Glowinkowski International, a leadership development consultancy with which I am associated, devised a fresh way to consider how values influence what takes place within different organisations.  This research was carried out under the umbrella of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership.

We asked two questions:

  • One, how well do you consider your organisation demonstrates a generic set of values.  We identified these through scrutinising a wide body of literature and winnowing down over 450 values to a more manageable list of six, each broken down into three components.
  • Two, how important is it to you that these values are demonstrated?

By combining these measures, the concept of a “values quotient” is computed, which as a single figure presents a clear sense of being good, bad or indifferent. Yet, so what?

Nudging towards a new style of leadership

Going back to my opening remark about the challenges we confront, many seem to me to be wrapped up in criticism of the prevailing model of capitalism, i.e. the dominance of Friedman’s free market over Galbriath’s socio-economic model.  Might the concept of a quotient provide sufficient a “nudge”, to rely on Richard H, Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s popular idea published in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happinessto leaders to challenge them to consider that they can run their businesses in a different manner and still be successful, both financially and across a range of other measures included on their performance dashboard?

Would a much more acutely “lived” values-based leadership style helped to prevent the 2008 melt-down?  As further evidence is published about the low engagement of staff (see, poor productivity, growing incidence of mental health caused by toxic organisational climates, might a strategic push to adopt and apply the principle of a “values quotient” induce a fervour of change that could actually produce some real value for individuals, for firms and the economy as a whole?

This demands fresh, invigorating leadership.  This necessitates development.  The traditional approach to leadership development may no longer work; consider this from Harvard Business Review, see  I am associated with US firm CNDG striving to make e-learning work once and for all.

Twenty years ago I was being sold e-learning as the panacea to all my training issues as a business leader.  Sorry, to date they have been placebos.  Reading a document on-screen (guilty with this blog) or watching a video isn’t learning, it’s information transfer.  There is neither opportunity to assimilate or apply the knowledge.

156/90 is not a blood pressure reading but figures quoted by the Wall Street Journal in an article published in October 2012, which states, “U.S. firms spent about $156 billion on employee learning in 2011, the most recent data available, according to the American Society for Training and Development. But with little practical follow-up or meaningful assessments, some 90% of new skills are lost within a year, some research suggests.”

Einstein liked his quotients.  He also remarked the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing and expect different outcomes.  Using the aforementioned mnemonic of CANOE, are we out of said vessel without a paddle and so far up the proverbial creek that retracing our way back to the main river course of behaving in an honourable and dignified manner is nigh on impossible?  Yet, positively, I believe there does appear to be a growing clamour for a different style of organisational leadership, one that possesses a very strong values quotient.

David Physick

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