Organisational Psychology: Our Values

Human beings are focused around interesting, pivotal moments and ideas. We assign great meaning to certain concepts such as courage, self-sacrifice or leadership. Certainly when humanity faces challenges these become more highly valued and more sacred.

These concepts are focused on the belief that humans are social animals and like chimpanzees, bees etc, we rely on each other for almost everything. The majority of us do not live hermit-like lives, self-reliant and not needing others. We live in a world dominated by large, complex systems. We assume that the money we are paid by someone for work completed will then be valuable in the monetary system. Not once do we stop to think that money has no value and hasn't since the Gold Standard stopped being the, well, standard. Money used to be linked to how much gold an economy owned - hence the existence of Fort Knox - but the UK left the Gold Standard in the 1930's and the US in the 1960's. Now money is valued based upon a complex interwoven system of agreements between countries, banks and financiers. As proven in 2008, those agreements can be undone when some of the parties cheat the system. This entire system is so complex that even economists admit it as hard to understand...and yet, we base our savings, our retirement, our homes and indeed our ability to buy food upon this delicate system. An interesting gamble, really.

silhouette illustration of human head with gears for brain

These systems exist all around us; the clean water that you enjoy, the waste removal from your home or the education system for your children. All of these employ thousands of people doing jobs that all rely on others to do their part in these complex systems. Each one of those people could start domino effects that cause major disruption but the vast majority of the time this isn't a concern - nothing goes wrong. This creates two outcomes; one, a false belief that we shouldn't be concerned or have fallback policies and two, Hollywood action movies about when those systems do fail. Admittedly, they tend to focus on the sharp, exciting end of these grand system breakdowns i.e. meteor strike, terrorist attack or volcano. Do not lose focus though, the shock is nearly always after the initial excitement; what occurs when the system that we all expect to work fails us. No food, no electricity, no water...no law and order. Then the true movie action really kicks in, cue hero entering stage right.

Just like humans, animals have certain systems they rely upon too. The much talked about drama of climate change impacts all of us, you only need to look at a malnourished polar bear to see their system has changed; not enough ice to hunt on means that they struggle to adapt to this new system. They have evolved to be successful based around certain values, those are changing too fast for them to adapt.

Back to Homo sapiens. Humans exist within these many, complex systems and can even exist when those systems breakdown due to one thing and surprisingly, it's not having an underground bunker full of toilet paper. It is our values. Some people might even call them morals. When a doctor goes into a hospital knowing that being there puts her at higher risk of catching an infectious disease or even then going home and then passing it onto her family, it is because of a sense of duty, her morals, her values. It is quite something that causes a human to overcome their own sense of self-preservation to help another. Most of us are impressed by this lady and her strength - it is something that we can admire.

Nonetheless we are all different and we all have different sets of values. Some people commit crimes, some people cheat on their partners, but the fact that people feel guilt over actions shows that they understand these values. Only sociopaths truly don't feel these values, but they are thankfully in the minority.

We live in interesting times where companies are legally recognized in some countries as having the same rights as people. They are legal entities with their own legal rights and obligations, separate and distinct from those of their members and directors. To this many organizations also add values, company values, to their mission or About Us page on their website.

There are many pressures upon leaders, such as from the board and shareholders and these values are sometimes ignored by the company leaders and even the overall organization. Some people may think of Google in this example and think of the 'Don't be evil' slogan. Whilst, I believe this has now been removed, it is odd that any organization other than maybe the villainous organization SPECTRE in the James Bond books needs to note that doing evil is the wrong course of action.

When private healthcare companies refuse help to patients because it's not profitable or a bank charges an overdraft fee to a struggling single parent despite both of these companies making billions in profit, we have to ask what is the value statement here? Making a profit is good; the Ferengi and Gordon Gekko have taught us this, but it can't be everything. Profit without focus on reputation or other impact can't be a long-term plan.

As I said before, humans live in systems and those systems work because of the values that uphold them. Companies that wish to have company values need to think long and hard about what those values mean to the company. Are they simply some words that look good on the About Us webpage and on the meeting room wall or do they genuinely guide and change the company approach to things? Would the organization consider their ethical and moral compass over profit, for example? This is an important question and not one meant flippantly.

You see, when employees see that the stated values of a company are not mandatory or even worse, not honestly held, they will recognize that the system is not what it appears to be. That those stated values are not really held. Moral bankruptcy is a dangerous thing to advertise to your people. Generally speaking when people see someone breaking their values it triggers a lack of empathy and also a social distancing. This is bad in relationships but it can be just as bad for companies. When people see their organization not working correctly, it could well cause them to think well, the company doesn't care, so why should I? If your employees don't care anymore, how do you do business?

A client of mine recently had teams that were disillusioned and not particularly committed to their work; projects took way longer than they should and the leadership were frustrated. When I met with the leaders one of them, burst out "Why are they like this? It's not anything we did!". Yet, prior to meeting leadership I had anonymously questioned a section of the workforce and their number one, standout concern was a 'blame culture'. Quite simply, the leaders had shown their values as being one of recrimination, of no responsibility and of not supporting their people. The teams recognized these values as the leaders not trusting the teams and so the teams shut down. They felt unsafe and threatened.

If you wish the system that is your company to work, it must have a set of values that employees recognize, understand and see being upheld by the leaders too. Leaders have to lead, they have to show people how to behave - they have to be the embodiment of the values they wish their employees to show. This leadership behavior one of the areas that deliver the safe and trusted environment that employees need to do good work, for projects to be successful and for companies to thrive. If you want your organizational system to work, values matter.