There is an accepted wisdom in businesses that company values are a good thing. Somehow, so the thinking goes, we will do better if we all share values. So the top team have an away day and invent some that really matter – to them. Then they communicate their importance and start to score people on how well they conform to these values.
This, they are sure, will promote business performance and effective working relationships.
But there seems to be a problem. Big organisations are regularly exposed for falling short of their values. VW espouses Social Responsibility but used software to mislead customers over car emissions; RBS valued “Doing the Right Thing” then got fined £390m for its part in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.
So what’s causing the problem?
Could it be that organisations don’t, of themselves, have values?
It’s the people within the business that have the values. And values are at the core of every human being. They are unique to each individual – as much a part of you as your heart or liver. Values are a key motivator: if you put energy into something that meets your core values, you will feel motivated and satisfied. By contrast, if you put energy into something that does not meet your core values, you will feel dissatisfied and frustrated.
Living in accordance with your own personal values enables you to play your best game and be experienced as authentic by others; really focusing on your values helps you get through adversity.
Where organizations create and reward company values they inadvertently create the sense in the employee that they cannot “be themselves” at work.
Instead, the person starts to try to behave as they “should be”. The results?
- Stress for the individual, who is constantly trying to conform to an image rather than getting into the easy feeling of being themselves.
- Reduced performance: if we feel that we can only access certain aspects of our skill set at work, then we sub-optimise the resources we can call upon to deliver goals. And reduced diversity means a narrower skillset with which to navigate an ever more complex marketplace.
- Lower quality relationships. People are excellent at spotting when someone isn’t being authentic. And, when they do so, they become wary of that person, or cynical. Why would teams be loyal to someone who is not authentic? Why would they “go the extra mile” to get something done?
So, whilst genuinely held values are critical, superimposed values are poor tools for truly driving performance.
What’s the alternative? This creates a real challenge for leaders. How do you move away from a “one size fits all” approach to create an organisation that is genuinely values-led? It means finding what really matters to each person and then providing them with the freedom to act in accordance with it; it means working hard to understand individual values and find genuine common ground. But then again, it provides the means to supercharge performance, so maybe worth the effort?