Do organisational value statements have any integrity?

fingers_crossedAt a recent management course (the provider of which, Duraikan Training, I can highly recommend) we got to the bit about ‘Values’, and I visibly winced.  In the last 20 years I have never seen organisational values make any demonstrable difference to the service or product provided.  The problem always stems from an inability to both talk the talk, and walk the walk.  Values are nice, but customers will judge your organisation based not on what you say you would do, but on what you actually did.

Lets take a topical example, the Co-operative Bank.  The bank has a set of values which “describe what is important to our organisation and guide our behaviours“.

So far, so good.  However, by making statements like “We take personal and social responsibility” and “We are financially prudent and strong” you have set a standard by which you will now be measured.

customers will judge your organisation not based on what you say you would do, but on what you did

Doomed to fail

The problem with such aspirational statements is that they’re almost impossible to live up to, even in a conscientious organisation in which the values are something people genuinely believe in, rather than the product of a marketing department’s fevered imagination.

The senior management of the Co-Operative Bank clearly did not live up to their ‘given’ of being “financially prudent” when they developed a £1.5bn capital shortfall.  It would also be difficult to describe the behaviour of the Chairman of the bank Paul Flowers as taking “personal and social responsibility” when he handed a friend £300 and sent him to meet a dealer in Leeds to buy cocaine.

At this point a lot of people might think I’m just taking a poke at an easy target.  And I am.  The point is, all large organisations are easy targets; because they’re large, and therefore more visible, and because people generally resent rather than celebrate the success of others.

What ‘values’ do is make the target even easier to hit, in effect painting a big cross on it, by making claims which are impossible to prove and very easy to disprove.  To most people, organisation values are a marketing driven initiative which values (no pun intended) form over function.

Let your product or service do the talking

I’m responsible for an IT department which delivers services to over 3,000 users in the University of Cambridge, and have no intention of ‘defining our values’, for two reasons;

  1. It won’t make any difference to the services we offer
  2. People won’t believe them

Values should be something that all levels of an organisation think about, there should be guiding principles which people can call upon when they’re making difficult decisions in their job.  The point is, those values shouldn’t be demonstrated by putting them on a website, they should be demonstrated by the way people conduct themselves in their job, how they deal with colleagues and customers, and the effort they put into their job every single day.

And as for value statements being a guide for the staff in an organisation, the same thing applies to your staff as applies to customers, in that they won’t believe a word of it (often because they see the dirty underbelly of your organisation, including examples of senior managers failing to live up to those values every single day).

values shouldn’t be demonstrated by putting them on a website, they should be demonstrated by the way people conduct themselves in their job

A list of banal platitudes is not how you ingrain a set of values in your team, as a manager you should be doing this every day; by example, by debating and discussing with your staff the right way to do things, and by never forgetting to listen to your customers, because they are the reason you exist.

The only effective measure of the values of your organisation is what your customers think they are, based on their experience of what you do.  Everything else is just an effort to find a short cut to success, by claiming something you don’t have.

Richard Bartlett

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