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  • Writer's pictureErika Clegg

Watch out for values-washing!

Larkenby's positioning statement is this: "Every company has values. Very few have an Active Ethos.".

What is an Active Ethos? It's the relentless application of a really well crafted set of values to create culture.

Without grasping the craft and application fully, values are no more than values-washing - a paste-up job over the status quo that is highly unlikely to make a significant impact (although a contravention could harm your reputation).

Look at the corporate values of a big business whose reputation has taken a pasting recently and ask yourself where they sit alongside the action that caused the upset. Take Brewdog, for example. Most of their values sit alongside their approach; but during the blow up a year ago with ex-team members, 'without us, we are nothing' rang a little hollow.

We've all experienced a contravention of values in our own direct experiences with organisations. Maybe late payments to SMEs, maybe a lackadaisical approach to the employee experience, maybe a cost-cutting exercise that impacts customer experience.

Values-washing is oh-so-easy to spot. Which is just one reason why we must avoid it in our own organisations.

Professor Bill George, Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO, and author of Discover Your True North and Emerging Leader Edition of True North says: “You do not know what your true values are until they are tested under pressure … Those who develop a clear sense of their values before they get into crisis are better prepared to keep their bearings and navigate through difficult decisions and dilemmas when the pressure mounts.”

When I run a launch workshop, we play a little personal values game which goes like this. People choose a small number of values that apply to them from a list of a hundred. They are then invited to share these in pairs: how the values feel, why they matter, stories of them in action. Their partner then issues a challenge for each of the values, to test if they hold up. (We have cards to help..!)

As you'd expect, there are shades of family games on Christmas Day, with the noise levels to match; but this 'game' has serious intent. It gives people an insight to how they feel when their values are challenged, and whether those values stand up to interrogation. Often, when they revisit the hundred options, they choose some different values that stand them in better stead.

At this point we are closer to the truth. And guess what, they don't have to be 'nice'! Our first port of call is likely to be to values which make us feel like 'nice' people, but when they are tested we can start to dig deeper to reveal what really matters.

I can't emphasise strongly enough how important it is to challenge your values to see how well they stand up. Because as Bill George says, if you can really get to grips with them when things are going smoothly they will serve you well when the winds change.

Your values need the robustness and honesty to support hard decisions and tough times. If anything about your business is of fundamental importance when the chips are down, your values absolutely must be able to support it.

So let's say your organisation is primarily focused on profit - then profit must be a value. If your goal is to be number one in your sector, then industry dominance must be a value. If your business's approach leaves little leeway for personal expression, then the corporate approach must be a value.

On which, Brewdog's other values are: we bleed craft beer, we are uncompromising, we are geeks, we blow shit up. I'd say that none of Brewdog's 'bad behaviour' contravenes any one of those four. If only they hadn't brought in the staff-based values-wash, that would be a pretty exemplary active ethos.


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