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Smile…and be a villain: values in corporate culture

by Shaun Horan | Mar 25, 2018 | News

When Enron collapsed in 2001 due to dishonesty on a massive scale (and dragged down Arthur Andersen with them), I had a look at what they said about themselves. What key things were important to them? What had they said they cared most about? It made for interesting reading.

One of their key values was “integrity”.

For me, that summed up a creeping sense of discomfort I had felt with the obsession for defining and documenting your “values” as a company. It is a discomfort that has stayed with me while working for and with a whole range of organisations. Some of these were outstanding, some weren’t, but whether or not they spoke about the right values had little correlation with their actual behaviour.

The behaviour towards values in an organisation was also interesting. Some display them in their offices, or give them to employees in ‘easy-to-remember formats’ to pin up, some even print them on coffee mugs! Some talk about decisions through the prism of whether it “accords with their values”, although a large amount of flexibility in interpretation sometimes seems to accompany those conversations.

Yet organisations are just groups of people. They have no independent personality of their own and so can’t have their own values. They may attract a certain personality type and have a certain culture (and culture definitely trumps values in behaviour), but that’s because of the people already there, not because some value exists magically on its own. Companies fail or succeed because of the people within them and the way in which those people behave to one another, to suppliers, to investors and to customers. Well-established brands can be destroyed overnight because of the behaviours and values of their current staff (see Barings and those already mentioned above).

So, I ask this. Do you need a printed list of values about yourself to remind you of what your behaviour should be as an individual? Or a list naming the qualities you expect of your friends? Or do you simply hold your values in your heart and judge the values of your friends by their behaviour over time?

And that’s the key point – organisations should be judged by what they actually do, and not by what they say about themselves. “Deeds not words” – the great slogan of the suffragettes – illustrates my point beautifully. This statement of values by the suffragettes only had meaning because it was followed it up by direct action. When Hamlet said of Claudius that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain, he was pointing to exactly the chasm between how you represent yourself, and what you actually do.

I lose count of the times I have seen organisations say in their corporate values that they are “caring”, but then demonstrate appalling behaviour to employees who need some understanding. Or those companies who describe themselves as courageous, decisive and honest, but are actually timid, dithering and afraid to be straight with their employees.

The more time that has to be dedicated to figuring out what your values are, (and getting them designed and printed for all to see), the less they would seem to be real. If you don’t know what your values are without the need for an away day, there may be no help for you.

None of this is to say that shared values are not important – they are vital in fact. Who and what you truly are should encourage the right people to work with you, and believe in what you stand for, and trust in you. As an individual, you should not have to leave your values behind at the corporate door. If you can’t be yourself and act with integrity in a work environment, you’re in the wrong place.

But it is not what you say about yourself that counts, it’s what you do. The two things have to marry up with no gap in-between. As a leader, this doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with your decisions or always like you, but it does mean that they will see that you are acting with integrity as you make decisions and that you behave in accordance with your values. Have a plan as to where you are going, be clear as to your strategy for getting there, do what you need to do to reach your goals, but use your values as your compass – if you can’t get there without compromising your core beliefs, you’re heading in the wrong direction.

So, let’s stop printing sets of values on gimmicky giveaways, and start living by them instead. Smile, and don’t be a villain.