9 mins

Values are meaningless, it’s all about conduct

By Steve Cook

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I stated in a recent post that I have never valued ‘values’ as a strategic component of brand, business, culture or anything else. I always thought they were a diversion from some vital areas of organizational development.

My reason for this has never wavered and what started out as a hunch has only been reinforced by growing experience over many years of being embedded in all types of organizations; analyzing their behaviours across their teams, operations and infrastructure, and then benchmarking this reality against stated vision, purpose and values. The gaps are usually astonishing. Values are at best theoretical and at worst, capable of tearing culture apart while alienating the very people they are trying to influence.

Values started out as a naive but rational way of codifying an organization’s ‘branding’ as in “we must deliver against our brand through our values”. As brand became more sophisticated, more science than art, the idea of values, along with purpose, mission, positioning etc. became the domain and proposition set of brand consultants. As we now know, in most organizations brand (and its consultants therein) became the tools of marketing.

Don’t cheapen something so vital.

From that point on, brand became bigged up, misunderstood and fucked up. Values went the same way. Everything became a tick box and/or vanity exercise for both clients and brand consultants. It became about sexing up the brand (and its values) in order to deliver what all the data said that people (customers mostly) wanted to hear – preferably in a way that differentiated the brand from its competitors.

The results were spectacularly predictable. Values became homogenised (precisely the opposite of differentiated), facile, unliveable and ultimately unbelievable. The value set became something to read and then ignore rather that something to live by. Worst of all, values were created by marketing and therefore, in the minds of many, were trivial and contrived marketing spin, alt.bollocks.

Values rarely define or create culture. Yet culture, with or without values, must in one form or another, exist in a visceral way in any group, especially organizations. So, culture needs to be influenced by something else, something meaningful and something that informs not only culture but strategy and all operations. Above all, culture etc. must be informed by something so substantial, relevant and valuable that it is taken seriously and acted on.

Values are a statement. Conduct is behaviour in thought and action.

I’ve always considered that culture is properly waymarked by vision and purpose, but where part of vision development is to shape how the organization wants to conduct itself, in total and across every area of its operation and interactions, both now and in it’s desired future. I used to describe this as brand conduct, but over the years, as I became more disillusioned with what brand was turning into, I dropped the ‘B’ word and kept the ‘C’ word.

The question “How are we going to conduct ourselves?” is much more meaningful and real than the question “What values shall we have?”. Conduct is actionable. It is a practical credo for living, and much more closely aligned to individual and team ways of thinking and behaving.

Conduct relates to the individuals first and is therefore much more inclusive. The cumulative effect of individual and team conduct defines the organization. It is also more closely aligned to the way that real people think and act, so conduct done well is more able to naturally resonate with all people.

Values are redundant. Organizations need to conduct themselves better

The ways that an organization chooses to, and then actually, conducts itself, as manifested through its people, policies, practices and profile have never been more important.

Scrutiny, cynicism, blame and intolerance are being accelerated by highly aware and knowledgeable concerned citizens. Previously accepting consumers, are becoming unaccepting of much that they see and hear around them in the ‘conduct’ of all sorts of organizations and the individuals that represent them. Real people (both inside and outside organizations) want to feel real empathy, a bond, with whoever they interact with. Conduct demonstrates the manifest truth about what an organization really cares about and how it really operates.

This becomes increasingly important as organizations begin to redefine how they will resonate with concerned and knowledgeable citizens and communities. How to lose the ‘us and them’ culture that has existed in the consumer age and conduct themselves better in the future.

In the future where there is only ‘us’, we will all share the same experience and conduct.

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