A holistic look at the language of value in corporate life
(Simon Nash will be expanding on the material in this article in a STIMULUS seminar in September - register your place here)
We often hear today that “businesses need to have more values”, sometimes citing a decline in values from an earlier golden age of values driven enterprise. Today I am going to posit that businesses probably need fewer values, not more, and that its more important how those values are held than, necessarily, what those values are about. But first an illustration and then a framework.
By way of illustration, who can remember which organisation held the values of “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence”? Pat on the back to all those who knew the answer was Enron Inc. But, you might say, having words like respect or excellence are so bland that they don’t mean anything. So lets take a look at Enron’s own elaboration of just one of these four. Enron defined its number one value or respect as meaning “we treat others as we would like to be treated…” which starts pretty predictably, but then carries on with “…we do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness or arrogance don’t belong here.” Or take this organisation whose mission is “to build unrivalled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity and dedication of our people leading to superior results for our shareholders.” You might have guessed by now that this was the vision statement of Lehman Brothers.
I suggest a framework that maps out the values domain in two dimensions is very helpful here. Values can be consciously or unconsciously held, and values can be publicly or privately communicated. It is easy to imagine a simple matrix that derives four quadrants from these two axes.
The two examples cited above clearly fit into the “conscious public” values category. Equally clearly, and now as a matter of record, there were internal discussions within both organisations that operate at the private conscious level. At Enron for example some of the memos and e-mails circulated in the final hours before the declaration of chapter eleven displayed the conscious value of “what must we do in the next few hours to make it difficult for the federal agencies to send us all to prison”.
Unconscious public values are held by every organisation, and for that matter every person, whether you want to have values or not. These are the unstated, but plainly observable values that can be derived from watching a person or business operate for a while. The person who without thinking holds the door open for an older person, is operating from an unconscious public value, which may be around respect for elders or may be more connected with help to the less able. The business that routinely pays its suppliers late but demands its own invoices are settled promptly is also operating from an unconscious public value. Finally unconscious private values are those things that come naturally to us, and may be done in secret, or certainly without show or expectation of attention. The person who routinely picks up litter along the road is probably operating from an unconscious private value.
This model is not only helpful for thinking about how to categorise the ways we hold values. It is also very useful in working out the implications and effects of having opposing values in each of the four quadrants. A few examples will make this clear.
Public conscious values contradicted by private conscious values. This is the situation where a business knows something is not true but seeks to hold out a message that appears attractive. This is the world of propaganda, spin and the “dark arts” of deception. There are two problems with the propaganda model, and the second one is that the audience is becoming too sophisticated (or cynical) to have the wool pulled over their eyes yet again.
Public conscious values contradicted by unconscious private values. This is the sociopathic or psychopathic model. A sick individual or business might earnestly say “I’m not going to have another drink” or “we put our customers first”, but at heart it cannot mean it, as it does not have the organisational strength of mind to choose what it wants.
Public conscious values contradicted by public unconscious values. This is the real of “I can’t believe its not butter”. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek was stopped in his tracks in the dairy aisle of the supermarket at the beauty of this illustration. The company knows its not butter. The shopper also knows its not butter, but the advertising invites us as consumers to willingly suspend our disbelief in a fairly harmless way. This is also why stage magicians are so much fun – we all know its not magic, but we enjoy that same suspension of disbelief in the public unconscious realm. This therefore is the quadrant of the gimmick or harmless
These three scenarios therefore map onto our matrix in the following ways.
We are therefore presented with four ways to “do” values in the modern world. Will we stick to the propaganda model, naively believing that you can still fool some of the people some of the time? Will we hold our values sociopathically, as a sick organisation that wants to help and harm in alternating measure? Will we take the ironic stance of holding our values as a gimmick – we know its not true and we know you know its not true and that’s ok?
Or can we press on through the hard process of identifying values that really are meaningful to us, that are the same in the public and private conversation and that align to our conscious and unconscious organisational behaviours? There is a line of an ancient Middle Eastern book of sayings that loosely says “Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but those who follow crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9)