Every so often an organisation sets off in search of its values; a handful of simple but powerful words that best articulate the most profound and fundamental beliefs of all who work within its walls. Consultants are hired, consultations are held; stirring words are workshopped and crafted to explain and celebrate OUR VALUES.
Here’s a typical example:
Ruthlessness, callousness and arrogance don’t belong here.
We work openly, honestly, and sincerely.
We take the time to talk with one another and to listen.
We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best.
Interestingly, these were the official values of Enron, arguably the most ruthless, dishonest and arrogant corporate criminals of the 1990s, which only goes to show how hollow such fine words can be when they’re contradicted by skullduggery.
Truth is, most organisations have two sets of values: the new, noble, heroic ones that are publicly celebrated and the older, darker, secret ones that prescribe a very different set of behaviours.
Such ‘shadow values’ are never written down, but if they were they’d look like this:
Attract praise. Avoid blame. Hide mistakes. Trust no-one.
Left unchallenged, values like these often become the unofficial instruction manual for toxic behaviour (especially if they are encouraged and rewarded, which they so often are) and over time they can even poison the culture of any organisation.
Despite the courageous rhetoric of the Mission Statement, it is these unspoken rules of engagement that explain how things REALLY work around here,
So if you’re hoping to shift a culture by wordsmithing a new set of values, be sure to kill off a few old ones first.