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Corporate control – value add or value laden?

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Corporate communications specialist Karen Drury considers how organisations control and manage their employees by promoting their own values.


One of the most popular management methods of control in modern organisations is through the development of value programmes which implicitly – if not explicitly – indicate how employees should behave, the style they should adopt, even what attitudes they should hold.

From the perspective of the organisation, this is a good idea. If the values provide some kind of guidelines for how employees should behave, managers have less to do – and therefore spend less time – in terms of policing behaviour.

Recent management texts such as Jim Collins’ Good to Great have furthered this idea. Values are seen to be part of what holds organisations together. In addition, research studies have found that organisations which espouse certain values generate greater employee commitment. Greater commitment has long been associated with retention and the display of organisational citizenship behaviours – or “going the extra mile”.

As a result, organisations can spend significant time and money identifying the values which may drive these outcomes and constructing their corporate identity behind them. Once identified, values are often “publicised” internally and externally. The external manifestation is through an often expensive change of logo, a brand re-launch, or the development of an employer brand.

The internal manifestation is through internal marketing campaigns and occasionally, supported by more robust mechanisms such as changes to reward and recognition, values based recruitment and crucially, value-consistent behaviour demonstrated by senior management. The alignment of internal and external is extremely powerful because both customers and employees know what the promise is because it’s clearly communicated – and they get what they’re expecting.

The concept falls apart, however, when the external promise falls flat because the internal delivery fails. Put very simplistically, customers swap suppliers, employees join other companies. One of the reasons that the idea fails is that there is a lack of alignment between what the organisation values and what the employee values.

This lack of alignment of external promise and internal delivery may be because organisational values are not the only values that employees are likely to adopt.

Geert Hoftstede, who has researched extensively into cross-cultural values, considers values to be “mental programming” as they guide behaviour and ways of thinking. Individuals have layers of values which may include religion, gender and social class. These fulfil a variety of group and social interaction needs. As a result, individual values are complex and sometimes conflicting – you may have certain gender values which conflict with your organisation’s practices, for example.

Organisations attempt to engage employees with values that are often chosen by the board (or, perhaps more frequently, groups of senior managers) with little reference to the existing culture and existing employees. They expect employees to hold these values dear and guide their actions at work.

At this level of thinking, employees seem to be thought of as little more than machines – feed a new programme into them, switch on and watch the workforce do new things.

According to the National Office of Statistics, in 2001 the most common length of time for an individual to be employed by the same organisation was between just seven and 24 months. The median tenure was four years.

Employees are likely to have been exposed to company values for significantly less time than they have been exposed to other layers of values throughout their lives. If the organisational values work against these other layers of programming, it’s unlikely that the most recent set of values will be the ones that guide behaviour. The mental programming to which Hofstede refers is deeply engrained – it is unlikely to be displaced quickly by a new set of “rules” chosen by the senior management.

So – how can you change the values of employees?

First of all – should you? Are employee values, developed over many years, fair game for managers who want their organisations to run more smoothly? We suggest not.

Because not only is this sort of “mental programming” possibly unethical for organisations, there are some significant differences of opinion about whether changing someone’s values – particularly in the short-term – is possible at all.

What organisations can do – and have less moral issues in attempting – is to change employee behaviour. This starts to put a completely different complexion on the task and increases the number of practical tools manager have at their disposal. Here, recognition and reward, training, organisational structure and organisational policy start to build a support net to employees’ changed behaviour.

However, this sort of change doesn’t necessarily bring about commitment or discretionary effort – both of which require some kind of shared purpose between the organisation and the employee. Which brings us full-circle to values.

If you are keen to build a value-driven organisation, start with the values of the workforce which are already there. Reinventing the wheel through a senior management workshop to come up with a “new” set of values might also seriously irritate employees who feel they already do display “integrity” and “respect for others”.

Working with values can be a celebration of everything that’s right with the organisation, rather than concentrating on everything that’s wrong. By starting with the existing values of the workforce, you can tap into the mental programming that’s already embedded and not fight it – which in extreme cases can cause stress and what’s termed “emotional labour”.

By beginning with the generally held values about work in the organisation, you start with a realistic and authentic baseline, something that is likely to resonate with employees and customers. This in itself is a crucial first step in the fight to keep employees from becoming cynical about yet another management initiative.

There will doubtless be a number of “aspirational” values which management would dearly love to be able to claim – but can’t. By all means, work towards them, but work towards the behaviours you’d like to see – don’t try and foist a value on the workforce that doesn’t correspond with their own. They came to you after all, partly in the belief that their values and the organisation’s had at least a degree of alignment.


Karen Drury is founding partner of brand and management consultancy, fe3 consulting. www.corporate magnetism.com

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