When I consult with organizations around the world about communicating their values effectively to and through their employees, the mantra is always the same. We created and published a corporate values statement and we hold effective on-boardings so we’re good to go.
Go to any corporate website and you’ll see some expression of these priorities, often under the heading Our Values. Even corporate mission statements, the short, often pithy paragraphs that describe what a company does, and for whom and how it is done, are often filled with corporate values. Let me give you a poignant, albeit dated example. Perhaps you can guess the corporation?
““X” company’s vision and values comprise the platform upon which our human rights principles are built…Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here…When we say will we do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it…We have an obligation to communicate…We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people…We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do…The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.”
This statement was authored by ENRON, the energy trading company that defrauded the world of $74 billion dollars. Yes, they trained their employees in this mantra, but there was obviously no bridge built between their words and their actions.
So, what did this and too many other defunct organizations over the last decades miss?
There are great vision, mission and value statements which a majority of companies proudly live up to. It is clear that having a values statement is important. Clearer still however, is the need to move beyond the words and ensure the deeds within a company match those words.
It’s not enough to articulate your values as a company or as an individual. You must put them into consistent action. More than that there’s something even more vital than values in understanding our ethics.
The most effective treatment about what’s missing is explained in the work of the Center for Ethical Leadership in Seattle. Tentatively tilted the 4-V Model, they came up with a primer for ethical organizational behavior. My own research also confirmed what’s good for organizational morality is also important to individual’s morality.
Let me briefly define the four ‘V’s’.
The first is Vision. This is the ability to see some reality or change in the future clearly enough to act upon. Steve Jobs described this as driving a stake in the ground in the distance and then trying to run fast enough to get there before others.
The second ‘V’ is Voice. This is the influence the visionary has over others to clearly see and work together toward achieving the vision.
The third ‘V’ represents Values. These are the agreed to beliefs and that guide the team’s planning and actions for reaching that future.
Most organizations and individuals have probably spent time, wittingly and unwittingly thinking about or articulating these three ‘V’s. Organizations will often use them as a mantra on the inside of the organization and a marketing tool for those outside.
Individuals probably understand these three ‘V’s’, but rarely write them down. They act more like implicit goals. As an example, perhaps you’ve wanted to own a better home or wildly exotic car or some other expensive item that requires planning and budgeting to purchase. If you attained that future, and even if you didn’t, I’m guessing you went through a process of envisioning your future ownership, involving others in that vision, and implicitly or explicitly sharing the values you’ll use to achieve the objective. This process gets more overt as others co-own that future with you.
Now it’s important to pause a moment before we define the fourth ‘V’ and its essential importance to the entire process.
Despots and tyrants throughout history have always had the first three, ‘V’s’. Pick one bullying current or past leader and follow the path. Did this despot have a vision about the way the world should work in the future? Yes! Did they have the power to convince others through rewards and punishments systems (the Voice) to work together toward that vision? Yes!! And, finally did they articulate and enforce a set of values about how everyone joining in the work would achieve the vision. Yes!!! At this point you may be envisioning raised swastikas, stadiums full of believers and the power to rationalize mis-truths and atrocities to achieve group ends. So, what’s missing?
The fourth ‘V’- Virtues. This is the ‘V’ that must animate and support vision, voice and values or exclusiveness, disunity and common rights are the victims of the march toward the goal. Perhaps there are some echoes here of our country’s recent misfortunes or the debacles of multi-national corporations caught in their own short-sightedness?
Virtues create the character that drives vision, voice and values to good ends using good means. Anything else is unethical and short-lived.
Perhaps it is useful to define virtues and distinguish them from values. The two are often confused.
A virtue is a trait or quality that is deemed morally good and serves as the foundation for principles and actions for the common good. Animated by these virtues, values are a collection of guiding principles about individual and group conduct. What’s missing in the tyrant’s version of values is that the inclusivity and actions for the common good are trumped by actions that benefit only the depot’s followers.
In organizations this often equates to untrustworthy communications, a lack of transparency both inside and outside the company and autonomous decisions that would not stand up to review. This version of values runs up against the caveat that all ethics are public and require input for all stakeholders in a choice.
Without an exercise of virtues, no effort is successful
As an ethicist, I am never as interested in a company’s values as I am in the virtues they prioritize. It’s obvious that few companies wittingly articulate their virtues in their priorities. Yet the evidence is clear, organizations that do not prioritize virtues such as trustworthiness, empathy, compassion, perseverance, creativity, and more, fall by the wayside.
Virtues often seem too soft and squishy to be of practical use. For a moment however, pause and think of the virtues prioritized in the actions of your organization? Are they implicit in the way employees act or can they be articulated in a more useful way? Do your hiring and on-boarding practices include understanding the fit future employees have with the organization’s practiced virtues? Remember, it is easy to publish value statements. The benefit of articulating the organization’s virtues is the animation and empowerment it provides to the company’s vision, voice and values.
Virtues are the internal motivations and habits that empower us to act in noble ways. The organization’s careful cultivation of virtuous habits is a lynch pin for organizations to be efficient, effective and long-lived.
Written by Christopher Gilbert, Ph.D.
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