Values or common decency?

Last week I went to the Gilbert and George exhibition that's on in London. It's called Scapegoating and is brilliant at taking 'a controversial subject and just putting it out there, making it everyone else's problem'. The show is billed as unflinchingly describing 'the volatile, tense, accelerated and mysterious reality of our increasingly technological, multi-faith and multi-cultural world. It is a world in which paranoia, fundamentalism, surveillance, religion, accusation and victimhood become moral shades of the city's temper … [the pictures] consolidate and advance the art of Gilbert & George as a view of modern humanity that is at once libertarian and free-thinking, opposed to bigotry of all forms.'

What it got me thinking about was organisational values partly because earlier in the week I'd been in a leadership meeting and asked why the four values that were part of the obvious visual paraphernalia of the organisation a few years ago seem to have sunk with only the faintest trace. I have seen them on certificates on people's notice boards but the latest date I've seen is 2010. When I've asked about them people have drummed up from their storage (and given me), thank you notes, mouse mats, notepaper and even a small 'silver' cup and many talk fondly of the value of having the values. The only evidence of their years of visibility is that they still appear on the performance management forms and people are appraised against them.

I didn't quite know what to make of the answer that one of the leaders gave to my enquiry, 'what do you think about the four values'? He said that people could see leaders (and others) behaving in a way that did not role model living the values so in his view it was better not to have them in plain sight as senior people (in the hierarchy) flouted them and this was noticed by their subordinates. A second leader endorsed that view. I've been thinking about this during the week because on the one hand not having written/codified organisational values because members can't stick to them seems sensible, on the other hand it seems that this response might be an outcome of some kind of organisational disability. Of course it could be signaling all kinds of other things but that immediately sprang to my mind.

As I've mulled this over I've recognised that I'm steeped in the notion that organisational values are 'a good thing'. I'm constantly reading (and writing) stuff about them: there's a never-ending stream written about 'values driven organisations' and many organisations lay great store on their values. So what I've been seeing this week is a counter view on values. A view that a friend I was talking with described as a 'values are propaganda' view. That's worth thinking on – which is what the scapegoating exhibition forced for me. Gilbert and George 'have never left us in any doubt about their atheism — they want to ban religion because they think it segregates people and causes them unhappiness'. Yet each religion is based on specific values with a set of 'operating principles', which from what the world is currently witnessing do seem to result in divisiveness, unhappiness, and entrenched positions.

Paradoxically Gilbert and George themselves have a set of principles that they developed in 1969. "The Laws of Sculptors":
1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed relaxed and friendly polite and in complete control.
2. Make the world to believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.
3. Never worry assess, discuss or criticize but remain quiet respectful and calm.
4. The lord chisels still, so don't leave your bench for long.

Additionally they have ten commandments

I. Thou shalt fight conformism
II. Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
III. Thou shalt make use of sex
IV. Thou shalt reinvent life
V. Thou shalt create artificial art
VI. Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
VII. Thou shalt not know exactly what thou dost, but thou shalt do it
VIII. Thou shalt give thy love
IX. Thou shalt grab the soul
X. Thou shalt give something back

These seem remarkably close to values and also like the type of thing that could give rise to very scapegoating behaviours they are commenting on in their work – which doesn't leave me much further in my musings on the question of whether a set of values that are imposed on people or required by organisations are 'propaganda' and it would be better not to have them pinned up or spoken about because they may be difficult to adhere to, to behave in line with, or to use as a yardstick with which to measure others against (but, in some highly public cases, not yourself). However, Gilbert & George are not expecting other people to adopt their principles or commandments.

One of the exhibition reviewers noticed the phrase written on the wall of the exhibition "We want our Art to bring out the Bigot from inside the Liberal and conversely to bring out the Liberal from inside the Bigot." Do organisational values serve to bring out the bigot or the liberal or both/neither? Read an interview with Meg Whitman formerly of e-bay and now of HP for her view on organisational values and how she came to value them at e-bay. She makes the point that it takes two sets of values for organizational success -— the hard-nosed business values and the "softer," ethical values and that 'eBay's success proved that values are not abstract ideals but essential tools'. So neither a bigot or libertarian view from her.

But are organisations that promote certain listed values and who expect people to 'live' them, actually manipulating – subtly or not so subtly – their workforce with the intention of controlling their behavior or at least channeling behaviour into an organizationally acceptable way? I'm now wondering if it's feasible to have a value set and simultaneously to 'value diversity' if the diversity of the workforce includes having members who had a different value set from the desired one? (I did once bow out of a working party on diversity that I was supposed to contribute to because I felt that the organisation 'valued diversity' only up to a point and my colleagues on the working party were unwilling to explore what that point was and make it clear to others).

So if not values, what? Years ago I studied the writings of George Orwell. He advocated 'common decency', which involves the willingness to treat other people, their concerns, and their ideas appropriately in line with their humanity. It is having an unselfish attitude that acknowledges the interests of others. See Anthony Stewart's book: George Orwell, Doubleness, and the Value of Decency for more on this.

So maybe having a list of organisational values that we expect people to subscribe to is not the way to go. Maybe it is sufficient to expect all organisational members to treat each other with 'common decency'. But what is the penalty for those who don't? Is that too difficult a question to answer – should we just let 'indencent' behaviour go?

What's your view on organisational values and is expecting common decency enough? Let me know.

NOTE: For some good quotes on common decency look here.