Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Values and Intolerance

Countless studies and best-selling business books repeat the same theme—values matter. The most successful companies are those that have a strong set of values that guide all corporate activity. Most firms in our business, recognizing this trend, have adopted a formal statement of values or guiding principles. But there is wide disparity in the degree to which these values really impact the firm.

As consultant David Maister notes in his book True Professionalism, there's a big difference between aspiring to follow a set of values and being absolutely committed to them. In fact, he argues, you cannot truly claim to have values if you don't live by them:

Something cannot be called a value or a principle if you are allowed to transgress it. Your firm can be said to have values only to the extent that there are clear, nonnegotiable, minimum standards of behavior that the firm will tolerate. In particular, whether or not your values are operational (i.e., actually influencing what goes on in your firm) is crucially determined by whether or not there are consequences for oncompliance.
In my experience, most firms, while claiming to embrace the high standards expressed in their values, routinely tolerate behavior that violates those values. For example, every value statement I've seen has something about serving clients and treating employees well. Yet there always seems to be individuals in every firm whose actions are not consistent with these values. When company initiatives are taken to improve performance in these areas, these same individuals are the ones most resistant to the change.

Are there any consequences for these individuals not supporting the company's commitment to its values? Not usually, especially if they are managers. If they have valuable technical credentials or bring revenue to the firm, they are commonly relieved of responsibility to go along with corporate efforts to raise performance in keeping with its values.

Maister writes of one firm that made the difficult choice of letting a star performer go because he refused to comply with its policies on collaboration and sharing—which were consistent with its values:

The point of this story is that there aren't many firms with the courage to do what this firm did, which was to incur a short-term income loss in order to bet on the long-run benefits of sustaining their values. In most firms, an economically productive professional would rarely (if ever) be confronted about softer "values" issues. As a result, very few firms actually have real, operable values. They say they do, but few of the professionals really believe that they're serious.
Interestingly, many managers in our business seem to fear that taking such a tough stance on compliance with firm values would be disruptive to the company's culture, which is shaped in part by the value of respecting employees and tolerating differences. But research and experience prove quite the opposite. Employees want to see their employer demonstrate intolerance when it comes to disregard for its values and standards. That's what reinforces the notion that the company really does stand for something.

So what about your firm? Are you serious about your espoused values? Are they lived out in every facet of your firm's operations or merely attached to the wall? Are you willing to enforce them or are they just something nice to aspire to? Do your values guide your company's decisions, motivate your actions, set the standard for behavior? Is your firm intolerant of behavior that violates your values?

Let me suggest that you do a "values assessment." Take an honest look at the role of your firm's stated values in the everyday life of your firm. You might consider the following questions:
  • Are our employees familiar with our values?
  • Do our values really mean anything to the staff?
  • Do we demand compliance with our values?
  • In what areas are we not acting consistently with our values?
  • Do all our policies and directives support our values?
  • How should we measure performance in keeping with our values?
  • What changes are needed to bring everything in alignment with our values?

This kind of assessment is best conducted with broad employee participation. That way you're more likely to uncover inconsistencies with your values, plus gain widespread support for renewing your firm's commitment to them. I suspect you'll find just how much your values can imbue new vigor and focus to your firm when they're taken seriously—a glimpse of why the best companies place so much emphasis here.

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