A couple of months ago I had an appointment for a meeting early afternoon with one of the directors of a multinational company. The location was their modern and spectacular office somewhere in downtown Budapest. I arrived earlier than planned, so I used my extra time to look around in the building. When I passed the entrance, I first saw several words made of plastic, hanging on the walls, transmitting the message: these are our company values.
The expressions in the picture above are similar with only a small difference: this company was proud to show that they carry the values of team spirit, transparency, and also innovation. There might be some of you who think “well, this must be the place where the management supports to create your dreams, to be inspired and to living in harmony”, but unfortunately in most cases, I have a b̶u̶l̶l̶s̶h̶i̶t “we must have written something to the wall” feeling when I see this.
Since I had at least 30 minutes for the meeting, and I was eager to drink my early afternoon espresso, I moved forward to the cafe which was located on the first floor. I had a secret spy plan too: as I was curious about the shared values here, I wanted to know more about the everyday organization culture. And what would be a better place to start my exploration, than a company canteen?
The coffee wasn’t good at all. Courage and quality — these were the two values I was thinking about when I did my second sip. I was wondering about two options: they might haven’t brave enough to buy a high-end coffee machine, or they did not mention the quality within their values on purpose. Anyway, as I was here, I started to mingle with some people. I tried to picked ordinary employees, who don’t look like managers based on their badges hanging on their necks. I asked one of them — let’s call her Sarah — what she thinks about the company values placed by the main entrance. Luckily, she was a talker. In her interpretation, these values more about the company’s employer branding strategy than anything else. Moreover she was not able to point out any situation when employees can live any of the values. When I asked her to define any kind of value which she can feel important in her everyday work, she chooses this particular one: harmony. Then she described that she feels in harmony when her teammates and her boss leaves her alone. I decided not asking her about the team spirit after this point.
My last question to her was related to the management value set. And here is her brief answer: do what I tell you / your manager’s decision can’t be questioned / you can be successful, when you follow the rules.
There are no right or wrong values, but it is essential to be conscious in value definition and communication
What is the problem with the values in Sarah answer from an organizational development perspective? It might sound surprising, but from my viewpoint, nothing at all. These can be as real and genuine values as the ones hanging by the main entrance. The difference is — if we believe in these words — what we see and experience at the organization level. If both value-set accurate, which one is the real one?
To have a more clear picture let’s step back and think through what is the relationship between the organization and an individual. There are many definitions exists already but let me share my version here:
“An organization is a community which has members gathered around a common purpose and believed in the same moral an ethical values.”
I wouldn’t say it is perfect, but I feel it good enough to examine values from the organizational perspective. However, to apply this to companies, it should be something like this:
“A company is a community which has members gathered around a common business purpose and believed in the same moral an ethical values.”
If we can accept this definition, then we also can admit that a business community, a company environment and moreover a company culture could not exist without the individuals who are creating it. These individuals, with believing in their value-set represent the overall company values. Sounds obvious, but what this exactly means?
Let’s imagine a company founder or owner taking part in the everyday operation. Let’s also suppose that he is an authoritarian with either a conscious or unconscious image of himself as a man in supreme power. The values he follows will be the same as what his self-image represents.
On the other hand, now imagine another person who believes in empowerment and transparency and who thinks getting and giving feedback is an essential personal value. He/she will represent these values in his/her everyday activities, customs, and communication.
It might sound strange, but both of the value-set can be represented as real shared values in an organization if the members — or the employees — can honestly believe them on their own will. Don’t deceive ourselves: many feel safe when their superior give them exact orders, and they might feel the same when they act similarly. Although I prefer to belong to a company who supports empowerment and transparency, autocratic organizations can be as efficient and lucrative if they can find and keep those people who are performing great and feel home in these communities.
Of course, it is also clear that there is a distinct relationship between the quality of the values and the conscious behavior of the individuals. Based on my general experience leaders who went through on their self-recognition process and understand themselves accurately and deeply, also can attract open-minded and self-aware people to build a community carrying the same values.
So, when the bullshit light starts flashing in red? When I feel that the organization communicate fake values out of the blue, either because it is suffering from fluctuation or because of its competitors shows real and more positive values. My opinion not as significant of course as the employees’ and moreover of the customers’ who might immediately feel the dissonance between the communication and the reality. As an example, it is worth checking this infographic below, showing the relationship between the company culture and the customer satisfaction.
How can we improve our value communication?
To put it simple: stop communicating fake values. But what should we do instead? I believe in the following list of actions:
1. We must look for the values on the level of individuals
2. Keep our focus on the influencers within the organization. These people sometimes don’t have any management positions as they influencing others in the company’s non-formal network. These people are important and valuable to us, because they will shape our community and share the values they believe in.
3. Finding the values are important, but we also need to define how each employee live these in their everyday work
4. In the end, we can communicate our values within and outside the organization.
I will write a detailed how-to on each of these topics (value recognition, influencer detection, employer branding) in the near future. Until then please leave me your opinion and share your experiences about company values.