Blog & Insight

Do business values even exist?

Values are what drive all our behaviours. What values aren’t - are things we decide or even choose to have ie they’re not conscious they’re unconscious. See my previous post for more on personal values.

The challenge is can we translate personal values into business values?

In this post from the 2015 archives I explore my answer to the above question - which means whilst useful examples they may no longer represent the current values of the organisations mentioned.

I know many organisations have published values statements but I wonder can we really suggest the current values statements used by most organisations are the same or even similar to our personal and unconscious values? And therefore should we be even calling them such? I’d suggest not - for a number of reasons:

  • When eliciting personal values we start with an individual’s behaviour to understand the value(s) driving that behaviour. Business values seem to work the other way round and simply become aspirational choices rather than something that reflects or explains current actions.
  • Personal values cover ALL our actions. Many business values seem to concentrate on the ‘softer’ aspirational values and forget about the ‘harder’ values that would inform for example the strategic direction, profitability or pricing choices made.
  • Even if people have the same core value, what behaviours they judge to be acceptable or unacceptable will differ greatly. Why else, for example, are there numerous linkedin group discussions exploring what integrity or honesty mean. Business values statements are therefore useless without a statement of behaviour to identify what the values looks like for that organisation.
  • Because they’re our personal values it’s automatic for us to behave in ways that support them. Unless our values are aligned with an organisation’s it’s likely we may find taking on its values and associated behaviours difficult. If they’re in conflict with our own even more so. I certainly don’t see much evidence of values based alignment in interviews or restructuring when new or updated values statements are published.
  • Making any changes to our personal values and/or their hierarchy (ie their relationship to each other) is not easy. Yet many organisations’ management teams seem to issue a new and improved values statement every few years and assume it’ll work.

What I believe is missing from many business values statements - is every behaviour and decision can't be assessed using most organisation's values statements. We can't look at most organisation's value statements and know what they're about because it's missing the fundamental reason organisations exist - to make money for their shareholders.

Let's look at Tesco for a moment - who at the time of writing had been censored by the supermarket watchdog for their treatment of suppliers and had stated business values of:

  • No one tries harder for customers
  • Understand customers better than anyone
  • Be energetic, be innovative and be first for customers
  • Use our strengths to deliver unbeatable value to our customers
  • Look after our people so they can look after our customers
  • Treat people how we like to be treated
  • All retailers, there's one team…..The Tesco Team
  • Give support to each other and praise more than criticise
  • Ask more than tell, and share knowledge so that it can be used
  • Trust and respect each other
  • Strive to do our very best
  • Enjoy work, celebrate success and learn from experience

The problem is most hard financial business decisions can't be made using these criteria alone? And if they were real values you should be able to - and you'd have a hierarchy telling you their relative importance in relation to each other.

That is, an organisation could do all of the above and lose money but apparently that's ok because their values are being met, and their core purpose of 'creating value for customers to earn their lifetime loyalty' has been met as a result. It's irrelevant that Tesco might not be there for their lifetime.

These business values would even question why Tesco even needed to increase payment terms in the first place?

Which means there's other decisions that are being made that sit outside this 'warm fluffy' list of behaviours that has no scrutiny, no agreement, and where anything goes, and are likely to be more important than anything that makes it's way onto the values list!

And that's the problem with business values - there are decisions being made that sit outside the business values criteria, and as such mean I have no idea what sort of company I'm really dealing with!

Yes we could look at Tesco's previous treatment of suppliers and say it contravened 'treat people how we like to be treated' but the original decision to increase payment terms didn't need to use these criteria to obtain agreement.

I wondered about VW's Values:

  • Social responsibility - For people 
  • Sustainability - Human rights, labour standards, environmental protection, combating corruption
  • A spirit of partnership - Equality, humanity, fairness
  • "Pro Ehrenamt" volunteering initiative

Nothing there about the product they manufacture, the pricing, the customers, the shareholders etc. So lots of great stuff but nothing that tells me who they are as a company, nor why they do what they do and so on.

If you're still not sure what I mean here's Innocent Drinks values:

  • Be Natural
  • Be Entrepreneurial
  • Be Responsible
  • Be Commercial
  • Be Generous

You might not agree with their every decision - especially if you're focussed and appreciated their Be Natural value, and would therefore prefer that it be their only focus - but at least it's honest about the decisions they make, and behaviours you might expect from them.

And Ben and Jerry's values statement goes even further and "operates on a three-part mission that aims to create linked prosperity for everyone that’s connected to our business: suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers, and neighbors alike" and covers:

  • Product mission - to make fantastic ice cream
  • Economic mission - sustainable financial growth
  • Social mission - to make the world a better place

Do your business values provide the criteria for every decision you make, or is unclear how the decisions you make daily fit into the corporate values statement?


© Alison Smith
VAT Registration: 224 5001 58
Registered in Scotland, Registration Number: SC457105
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