I don’t like your tie…values in business

Once upon a time, I asked the CEO of a large organisation what was most important to him at work.  He answered “values.”  I asked him to say more and he explained that his values pervaded everything that the organisation did, that they were the foundation of the entire enterprise.  He said that chief amongst them was honesty, and that he encouraged honesty in everything.  I said “I don’t like your tie and it doesn’t match your shirt.”  “How dare you!” he said, and I explained that somewhere in a parallel universe, someone had been talking to me about honesty…”  Honesty, in his mind, gave him permission to say what he wanted to others in his business, but did not confer on them the right to speak honestly to him.  (By the way, it was a perfectly nice, matching tie and shirt, but you get the idea.)

Values have little place at work because they are personal things.  I’d go further and say that, at some level, trying to label values can almost trivialise them; we don’t really have adequate names for whatever these things are that drive us at a deeper level.  But because they are personal they can’t, ergo, be corporate.  If company leaders tell me what my values should be they are denying me my personal values.  Of course, they are not really talking about values – they are talking about behaviours.  I think it’s perfectly all right for a company to insist on reasonable standards of behaviour, but not to dress them up as values.

Consider this:  Take twenty people and ask them for their core values.  They will give you words like “trustworthiness”, “integrity” and “honesty”.  Ask them to define “integrity” and they’ll give you twenty different definitions, none of them wrong, all of them personal.  So if we all define it differently, a company can’t claim it as a corporate value because everyone will interpret it differently.  Values, as I said, are personal.

The only thing we can see in others is their behaviours.  I can’t see your values, but I can see what you do and hear what you say and that’s what counts for me at work.

Worse still, a company, having declared its corporate values, will often neglect to translate them into anything practical, so they remain an abstract statement in company documentation.  And the moment they do translate them, they have to explain them in terms of behaviours, which brings us full circle.

So there’s no place for corporate values.  If a value is personal, the company can’t own it.  If we all interpret them differently, we don’t know what they mean anyway.  If we can’ see them, they serve no purpose.

What we’re left with is behaviours.  And now we have something we can discuss quite rationally.

To discuss behavioural skills training, any other aspect of leadership and management development or business consultancy, call me on +44(0)161 929 4145 or email David Cotton.

I look forward to hearing from you.

David Cotton is an independent trainer, management consultant, facilitator and speaker with vast international experience.

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