The Oxford dictionary defines values as standards of behaviour. Kumarmangalam Birla, on his company’s website (www.adityabirla.com) calls them the ‘soul of the organisation’. He elaborates further to say, “The values of any organisation define its character and personality. Values guide, shape and influence our behaviour and actions. The external world perceives and responds to an organisation based on the way that it goes about conducting its business.”
Yet unfortunately, in the real world of business there seems to be much cynicism about the significance of values.
Walk into the reception area of a multinational pharmaceutical company and you will be greeted by large sized posters defining the core values of the company. Talk to the employees about the values and a tone of scepticism creeps in.
Utter the word values to a group of management students and they will dismiss it as a lot of ‘gas’.
Recognising this, Jack Welch begins his book Winning with the sentence “Bear with me, if you will, while I talk about mission and values”.
Why so much cynicism about the most critical driving force of business success and corporate governance?
Jack Welch may have the answer.
The term values (and mission), he says are the two most abstract, overused, misunderstood words in business. Audience addressed by him frequently ask about the actual meaning and relevance. Business schools add to the confusion by asking students to debate values, rendered futile by being carried out in a vacuum. In companies senior executives come together to do the same in an attempt to “create a noble-sounding plaque to hang in the company lobby.”
Much of the misunderstanding of the term in the world of business, arises from the fact that they are believed to be impracticable and difficult to practice in the real world. The question is - are they?
A professor of ethics in a management institute has an interesting way of teaching his students the correct meaning of values. He begins by asking his students what they understand by the term and the students come up with things like honesty, integrity etc. His next question is “What are the values of the D-gang”. The students are flummoxed – gangsters and values? Yet, according to an article in HT some time ago, the underworld which by definition exists in defiance of the rule of law operates by its own usools, its unwritten code. The article describes the seven usools, or, values or expected standards of behaviour as:
1. Keep family out of suparis
2. Don’t touch your rival’s loved ones
3. Don’t kill the guys in khaki
4. Betrayal not allowed
5. Insubordination not accepted
6. In jail stay on top
7. No ‘singing’ please
The underworld’s business it would appear from the above list is also sensitive to honour and loyalty, but these values are implicit. If the underworld were to ever corporatise, you could well see their value charter prominently displayed in the grand office lobby to read:
Our Undying Values
2. Respect for the individual
6. Maintaining customer confidentiality
The way to demystify values, it will be clear from the above, is to treat them as simple to understand common standards of behaviour, believed and practiced by all throughout the organisation.
Values - hot air or real?
Much of the cynicism around values is because they are too vague and cryptic for practice. Welch, quoting his experience when he first became CEO at GE says, he too was guilty of endorsing vague, too cryptic values such as “face reality”, “live excellence” and “feel ownership”. These platitudes sounded good, but had a long way to go toward describing real behaviours. Over time he involved more than five thousand employees in the development of values and the result was more concrete. Employee involvement in drafting the charter of values then, is essential to their ownership.
Another aspect CEO’s of organisations need to remember is to practice their set of proclaimed values. Else these will be dismissed as hot air and make the employees a sceptical lot. As could well be happening in the pharmaceutical company cited above.
The trick then, as Welch puts it, is to understand that business values are not ‘so much hot air’ but ‘something so real’. They are standards of behaviour that correctly articulated, believed in and practiced, can lead organisations to success.
(Uday Arur is a Business coach practicing in Mumbai)