Pause the values based plea in organisations

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] values based approach to anything is a very high calling. Is it not too high? It is especially, it seems, in the business arena where from time to time this plea for a values based approach surfaces. Here is one example. Download the free ‘values based leadership in business innovation ebook’ here. I’m positive yet hesitant and ask that you press the pause button just for a while. All too often our values end up somewhere on walls and posters as a sort of reflection on our team or organisation’s intellectual work on values. They do not quite show up in our practice and our hearts as they do in our heads.


There are at least four things to keep in mind before proceeding with the values conversation:

Values are cultural specific.

With culture I do not mean race or ethnicity as such. Although, these are included. I’m using a broader definition that includes subcultures, different organisational cultures, and so on. This is perhaps the easiest example on the matter: Western society has given us a great amount of the value of individual autonomy. This is in stark contrast to African cultures that emphasize the group and that our identity is located in the group.

Values can be in competition or contradictory without being negative.

With reference to “Without being negative”: Values cannot be negative ‘in principle,’ nor can they be positive ‘in principle.’ They find existence within a certain community or society in relation to what those members regard as valuable. Rightly, they can have negative or positive consequences. This also implies that values are contextual and holding on the the principle of a certain value (always), is going to get you trouble.

Values are not for the choosing.

So many organisations write their mission statements (and such) around a bunch of useless words that are supposedly their values, like customer satisfaction and so on. Following Patrick Lencioni on this most similar values are really ‘permission to play’ values (they have to be present if you want any kind of sustainable business). Then the bulk of values that we uphold are really things that we aspire to. I use to be in the ministry environment. I must tell you that these kind of organisations are perhaps very susceptible to writing or communicating what they’re about in terms of their aspirational values. This is natural since embedded in our role models of faith their is much to aspire to. The danger lies in the perception of hypocrisy when people say that these are our values but clearly live a different set of values. The question remains What are your ‘core’ values, those that you can to some extent already be recognised for? If you really want to see your aspirational values become core values, it’s going to take a heck of a lot of social oomph and dedication. Then surely, aspire to only one or perhaps two.

Values that we hold as ‘core values’ are the result of something (stories).

I tweeted the other day (@elmopienaar) that

Values really speak [become known] when we make decisions.

This happens naturally! We do not ask ourselves whether some or other decision is in accordance with our values. For this and other reasons I find it much more useful to actually work with stories. Our stories will point towards our values. Interestingly we tell our stories different from time to time and so different values come to the fore at different times.

If we can keep these in mind, by all means, let’s continue the values thrust in organisations. After all, it attempts to be good for work cohesion, work environment, society and so on.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in general. Or, more specific, where do you think the values-based conversation is taking us in business and society?

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