Shared values or not

‘You don’t need to share values’, someone I was in a meeting with the other day, said very firmly.  I’ve been thinking about his statement.  In each of lift lobbies where I work the organisation’s values are the first thing you see when you leave the lift.  They’re painted large on the wall opposite the lift doors.  I found his statement intriguing and I’ve been asking myself some questions that it raised for me:

  • Do I share those values?
  • If so, how do I convert them into my day to day working life, so I ‘live’ them?
  • Are the values ‘liveable’ – for example, if I make what I believe to be a ‘bold decision’ (one of the values) what if others believe it is foolhardy, risky, or wrong?
  • Does it matter if I don’t share the values? If so, in what way?
  • What if I do share the values but interpret them differently from others – what are the implications?
  • How does the concept of ‘sharing values’ square with the concept of ‘valuing diversity’? Suppose someone doesn’t share the values but met all other criteria for employment, would we say that they are not right for this organisation –  in which case would we be valuing diversity – or only some aspect of it?

Maybe I’m overthinking this off-the-cuff comment, but it led me into looking more at espoused values – those that appear on walls, on corporate websites, sometimes in the employee handbook and on induction programmes.   In a paper ‘Evaluating espoused values: does articulating values pay off?’  Researchers noted that there’s often ‘cynicism and suspicion about the values that companies espouse with their written value statements. Terms like “window dressing”, “greenwashing”, and “PC” (political correctness) easily spring to mind because the link between articulated values and corporate behaviour may be tenuous’.

Nevertheless, these researchers offer several reasons why having them is worthwhile.  They found that espoused values:

  • Are important because they are positively associated with financial performance.
  • Help with ‘impression management’ and that a ‘corporation’s ability to communicate values to their current and potential stakeholders is better than not trying at all.’
  • Are increasingly contractually required in order to acquire new customers, including governments.
  • Are associated with matching people’s values with those of the organization and that ‘communicating espoused organizational values upfront paves the way for matching expectations and for relevant discussions prior to recruitment and relationships with potential partners.’
  • Can help employees (and potentially other stakeholders) focus their attention on what is considered ‘right behaviour’ and assist in their interpretation of what makes a ‘good soldier’: they know what ideal to strive for, what is conceptually expected from them, as they are a ‘solid cue for current and future staff and managers of the organization regarding what is important around here.’

They conclude their paper saying, ‘Our findings suggest that, while managers should not naively believe that corporate values will necessarily be exactly what people in the organization do, there is some advantage to espousing values actively as part of corporate communications strategies. We recommend espousing values that are, at least to some extent, different to those of other companies, and we believe that organizations are better off adopting a dynamic approach to espoused values where changes and dialogues take place.’

The ‘dynamic approach’ is interesting.  Their suggestion is that it is better to change an organisation’s espoused values over time, rather than stick with a long-term stable set.

The changing nature of espoused values in organisations is touched on in another research paper, Mapping Espoused Organisational Values.  Here researchers found that ‘A first observation is that our inventory of espoused values has similarities with previous frameworks on organisational values in general. For example, all include values that are concerned with capability, including performance, efficiency, flexibility and adaptability. … However, there are categories in our inventory that are not evident in most of the prior frameworks. In particular …  values that reside in the ‘Emphasis on Community’ … such as ‘sustainability’, ‘care for environment’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethical practice’.   Similarly, values such as achievement’, ‘winning’ and ‘challenge’ do not appear in earlier inventories.

They suggest that ‘the richness of value labels that relates to broader ethical issues may be aimed at external stakeholder management, but also may have an increasing influence on organizational behaviour as they are embedded into organizational practices.’

I what ‘embedded’ means?  What I take it to mean is that the espoused values must be more than words on a wall.  They must be evident in every day use.  Achieving this could contribute to overcoming the ‘say-do’ disconnect which gives rise to the cynicism that often accompanies discussions of organisational values.  (See some research on this in:  Inspiration and Cynicism in Values Statements) How does being embedded square with being dynamic?

One way of making use of the values is in decision making.  Joel Urbany explains how to do this.  He points out that ‘a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values. Because the values that underlie our decision making are often buried in the shortcuts we take, we need a means for revealing those values and expressly thinking through the trade-offs between them.’  He outlines a process of decision mapping that ‘literally creates a picture of a decision that is built around choice options, consequences, outcomes and values/goals.’

Principle 1: Every action represents a choice

Principle 2: Every choice option has both positive and negative poles.

Principle 3: Every decision is a trade-off of values.

Principle 4: Reflections about values are more likely to “stick” if they are grounded in the reality of everyday or recognizable decisions rather than presented in the form of abstract exhortations.

Urbany continues by outlining how to use decision mapping as an everyday tool in organisational life, linking it to the values of the organisation.

This seems a practical and useful approach to both having and using organisational values, what it doesn’t mean is that someone has to ‘share’ the values – they just have to enact them.

I didn’t answer all my questions as I pondered the statement ‘You don’t need to share values’ – but I ended up agreeing with it.

Do you think employees need to share organizational values?  Let me know.

Image: Sharing values and social ontology, Marcus Hedahl & Bryce Huebner