How to Change Workplace Values: Ignore Them

January 13, 2024
3 mins read


By Francis Wade

Sunday, September 11, 2011.

In organizational life, it’s sometimes better to change things by simply not talking about them. Case in point: “Corporate Values.”  Why is that?  It is because we don’t know what we’re doing when we talk about “values,” and the resulting confusion crowds out that which is most important.

CEO’s and other executives frequently convince themselves that the cause of their staff’s unwanted behaviour is that they lack a mysterious ingredient – values.  When they make these pronouncements they fail to see some important, but inescapable truths that doom their efforts to instant failure.

 Us vs. Them

Almost without fail, those who call for a change in values are older than the target group whose values must be changed.  Often, they are simply talking about the “good old days” when people behaved themselves, murder was rare and your door could be left open all night.  It was also a time (apparently) when workplace discipline was enforced, company loyalty was high and no-one complained about low wages.

However, a closer examination shows that the unluckiest Jamaicans at the time were born dark-skinned, female and to parents who were unmarried, but these historical facts are often overlooked in a rush of nostalgia.

The hard, heavy judgements being applied by those who call for value-based transformations are hidden from their sight, but are often quite obvious to the accused i.e. staff members who are supposed to be living values such as “Respect”  or “Teamwork.”  What often ends up happening is perverse.

Staff members who are presumed to “lack the values” end up learning a profound and lasting lesson in how to point fingers, be dogmatic and studiously avoid blame.  New values indeed!

The Clueless Leading the Blind

What generally amazes me is that those who call for changes in the values of others have no experience in making such changes in their own lives.  They make it sound easy… when in fact, my experience and the research on corporate culture change show that it takes place slowly and painstakingly.  The blind, unfortunate targets of such transformation efforts silently complain: “If it’s so easy to change values, why don’t YOU show us how?”

It’s too bad that that question isn’t asked more often in corporate change efforts because it would put a halt to the nonsense that executives perpetuate in the name of Corporate Values.  It would force leaders to put up or shut up, and convince them to perhaps undertake one or two personal experiments, just to see how hard it is to change a single value.

One thing they’ll realize is that there is no way to judge the presence or absence of a corporate value.  How about lying to your boss?  Well, was it done to avoid punishment, or to protect him/her from a crushing public opinion?

Because there are no hard measurements possible, we fool ourselves into believing that we have values when we don’t.   Companies do it all the time on a massive scale.  Enron…. “integrity.”  JPS… “, reasonably priced service and high customer satisfaction.”

An over-focus on corporate values creates imaginary destinations at which people in the real world cannot ever arrive.

Cutting the Confusion

While corporate-value preaching is an easy and inexpensive activity to implement, it’s better to simply stop talking about values.  Instead, focus your staff on observable behaviours that everyone can agree on, anyone can measure and executives can demonstrate without suspending common sense.  For example, instead of valuing “Wellness,” get more people to burn more calories each day in exercise programs that measure “total pounds lost” or ” average body-fat percentage lowered.”

Then, use the most recent research to put reinforcements in place that encourage the change, including publicising the executive team’s fitness data on the corporate intranet, accompanied by pictures and graphs of each manager’s progress.   Or, use the principles of and get people to bet on their success with live cash that gets refunded only if they meet their goals.

That’s the kind of common-sense creativity that companies require, but they might first need to officially shut up, and stop wasting time and effort making value-based complaints.

Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System.

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