To what extent do we hold ourselves accountable for our values?

A young relative of mine was recently travelling on a bus when a group of laughing schoolkids, having finished drinking from a can, screwed up the can and threw it out of the window in the path of a car coming the other way.  They thought this was hilarious.  My relative spoke to them, nicely, asked them if they realized how dangerous this was for the driver of the car.  The response she got was mocking laughter and crude imitations of her words until she got off the bus.

When she told me the story I was sufficiently intrigued to get onto the web and look for the values that the school has on its website.  There weren’t any.  So, I called the school to describe what happened.  And the response was?  Defensive.  “It’s not our fault what happens outside school.  We can’t watch them all the time.  It’s the parents’ responsibility as well as the school.” I then explained that the only reason I was able to call the school was because these pupils were wearing its uniform.  I am still following this up because for me, writing an article about values and what they mean, this was a very good example of exactly how wrong things can go when values are not shared or are no more than nice words on a piece of paper.

My relative’s values include taking ownership of a problem, courage and self-respect.  Values that could apply to any business.

definition of value

Is having a set of open values an important issue for businesses?

What’s the purpose of having stated values?  Is there any point?  What are values?

Values are the bedrock on which the culture of a company is built.  And the values should derive from the company’s vision.  In our recent article on Vision, Mission Values and Culture, we quoted Ben and Jerry’s vision of: “Making the Best Ice Cream in the Nicest Possible Way.”  This company has derived its values from this statement, encompassing moral, ethical, financial and business values.  And from what is available to read, the culture of the company supports these values.

If the values are the bedrock, the culture on which they are built must be matching.  If not, it’s like building a house with poor or no foundations.  It’s going to fall down, sooner or later.

Matt Blumberg of Return Path defines the purpose of Values to: “Guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right.”

Are there ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ Values?

Imagine three companies:  Company X, Company Y and Company Z.

This is not a question about the moral requirement of values.  If the underpinning principle is that the values must evolve from the vision and mission, then values which do so are the ‘right’ values for the organisation.  If the mission of company X is to make as much money as possible in the shortest time, then the values will be about energy, self-preservation, hard work, boldness, etc.  And to attract candidates who will thrive in this organisation, the company will talk about the highest rewards for the best performers. They’ll also mention the opportunity to fly high, gain personal wealth, be a good individual operator, no need for teamwork, weakest to the wall, etc.  For some this may be repugnant but in the context of its own environment it will probably succeed.  Virtuosity and morality are another issue.  And caring about whether other humans may be adversely affected by such values is not something that will cause this company to lose sleep.  But, ultimately, the company is acting in a way that is in line with its values.  Morally toxic, possibly, but congruent.

Company X tends to be in the minority, as the context in which it can thrive is limited.  A larger set comprises Company Y.  This is a company that values its employees. It has a vision and a mission that its employees probably can’t remember, and its stated values will include some of the classics, such as Integrity, Accountability, Diversity, Employee Development and Teamwork.  For a company that wants a decent set of values, the list of nice words is endless. 

core values on wooden blocks

However, Company Y has selected its values from a ‘pick and mix’ list to demonstrate what it thinks it should be like, to advertise its brand to its customers and to attract good employees.  The problem for Company Y is that these carefully chosen values are discrete. Although they bear a relation to its vision/mission, having been chosen for the wrong reasons, give rise to a toxic culture. This is something that we will come on to in the final article in this set.

And finally, there is Company Z, a larger group than X.  Company Z has a credible vision and mission and has spent time ensuring that its values will reflect these.  It has also studied and understood two crucial issues:

  1. The concept of a career has changed.  In their September blogpost, The Predictive Index quotes the statistic that “the average employee has been at their current company for 4.2 years.  That statistic declines to 2.8 years when looking at a millennial demographic, the largest generation in the workforce.  This means that employees aren’t afraid to jump ship when faced with a toxic workplace and if it’s your high performers jumping ship, you’re in trouble.”
  2. “A company’s values should never really change.  They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there in 10 or 100 years from now.  They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game.”

Where is the Value in Values?

Knowing their company’s values as well as the mission and vision should give employees a good sense of its purpose, helping them when they have important decisions to make.  We live in an age of rapid change and advancement and the need to keep up is constant. The company’s values can provide a sense of what is right, and what should be consistent when important changes are needed.

The fact that a company has a well-defined and public set of values will form part of its attraction. This attraction will be for the best staff, who are more likely to stay at a company. This in turn will lower turnover costs as well as giving the company a stronger competitive advantage.  And it’s not only the potential high-flyers who will be attracted.  Potential clients with similar values are more likely to trust a company that can show how it embodies its values.

Business meeting to discuss values

We are not going to tell you in this article how to define your own values, if you haven’t already done so.  Petaurum can help with a process, ideas and methodology.  But the first decision is to realise how important an issue is, knowing your own values and realising their potential for your business success.

The only recommendation we make is that you don’t just have a long list of words.  Keep it short.  Keep it memorable and keep it snappy. 

And most important, be true to yourself.