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Hard work! Aligning organisational values and behaviour

Alignment of articulated and enacted values in business

The issue of how well an organisation’s values align between what they say they are and what they actually do in practise was illustrated very graphically by a large software company this past week. It also shows how difficult it is to get all parts of a large organisation to act in the same way on the same issue. The news coverage aggregation via Google is fascinating to review.

In that case we see an organisation that has articulated a particular value – diversity – very strongly. It has successfully enacted this value in many ways and places within the organisation and is seen as a leader in the broader community. And yet there still remained a pocket of that organisation that did not see how that value did not align with some planned promotional activities.

As a former manager within large corporations I know how challenging it can be to get the values enacted across the entire organisation. And I have a great deal of sympathy for Microsoft and their recent predicament. It could happen to any of us.

But their predicament did get me thinking about how this kind of thing could be prevented in future, and how other organisations could learn from this.

Blame is not the answer
Hardly anyone wakes up in the morning thinking that they want to head into the office and damage the company’s reputation. Mostly these things result from misunderstanding what is required or not perceiving that an action might be considered badly by external stakeholders.

Blaming the individuals who make a mistake does not really help. It can make them into passive-aggressive rule followers or ensure they feel hard done by and leave. Firing them also sends a bad message. It tells other people that mistakes are not tolerated, and stops everyone from feeling safe to take action.

Turning the mishap into a corporate story or parable is useful
Putting the learnings from a mistake into a corporate policy (while making some feel better) generally does nothing much to change behaviour.

The trick is getting the learning into the culture and translating it into practice. One good way of doing this is to create a corporate story or parable that illustrates what happened, the results, the key learnings and the principles to apply to avoid similar mistakes in future.

Then the parable needs to become part of the leadership narrative and is used create awareness of the values and how they should be enacted. It is much easier for people to remember story than a policy.

To get the story out it is necessary for business leaders (formal and informal) to use the story to illustrate how the value applies in real life. Some insights into how this can happen are:


McKinsey: cultural revolution in four steps

Don’t forget Enron!
They had some of the nicest sounding values you could list and put on a pretty poster. But clearly none of those values were enacted in a meaningful way.

Enron’s 1998 Annual Report, “Our Values”:
RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.

INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we say we cannot or will not do something, we won’t do it.

COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another…and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Source: Yale (opens Word document)

There is nothing that makes corporate values seem more real than people seeing leaders within the company apply them daily as part of doing business.

1 thought on “Hard work! Aligning organisational values and behaviour”

  1. Nice post Kate. organisations tend to behave in more primitive ways than individuals – and so higher qualities such as values need reinforcing and embedding in different ways. I love the stories idea.

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