Espoused Values vs Behaved Values

The culture of an organisation can either enable its success or bring about its inability to respond to the changing, competitive environment in which it operates and many discussions on culture talk about shared values and beliefs.

These can loosely be defined as the collection of driving factors that influence the way the organisation’s staff behave. As an example, the Body Shop is famously against testing any of their products on animals. Their full list of values in 2017 is published as:

  • Support Community 
  • Fair Trade 
  • Activate Self Esteem 
  • Defend Human Rights
  • Against Animal Testing 
  • Protect The Planet 

For these values to have meaning they have to be translated into policies, procedures and actual behaviours, especially by senior managers.

Consider the case study of Merck, the pharmaceutical company and the river blindness disease. When Merck decided to develop a drug to treat river blindness, a disease afflicting over a million people in developing nations, it recognised it was entering a large market but one where end-users could not afford its product; it pushed on with development anyway in the hope that a government agency would buy its new drug; in the event no one did – so Merck gave the drug away free to anyone who needed it.

Why? Because the company had a value of ‘preserving and improving human life’ and so not to have done so would have completely undermined the value.

Senior managers, as leaders, play an important role in establishing the culture of the organisation, due to the influence they have on its values. This happens whether they intend it or not. The ways senior managers spend their time, and their apparent priorities, are interpreted by their staff. Even the way managers dress sends a message about the type of culture they favour. By referring constantly to quality, or by themselves attending training events and refusing to be interrupted, managers signal what is valued and in what direction the culture of the organisation should consolidate or move. By choosing to be a member of a particular project team, they affirm the value of the project. When they offer to meet at the client’s home, or when they choose to ‘walk-the-job’ to another manager’s office, the word soon gets around. Indeed managers, at all levels, must be prepared to enact as well as espouse the values that they wish to underpin the culture of an organisation.

From a more negative viewpoint it is clear that just stating a set of values without backing them up with rewards, policies and procedures won’t create a specific culture. Values that are espoused but which are then contradicted by the behaviour of managers are unlikely to be widely accepted and the culture of the organisation will not change.

For example, a manager that claims the culture is ‘family-friendly’ but continually schedules meetings for 5pm, which would clearly be inconvenient for employees with family commitments.

Or managers who claim to want to support staff development but don’t allow staff the time to attend training events.

So leaders, at all levels, beware you cannot avoid influencing culture. Consistent behaviour demonstrates the values that a manager wants to perpetuate, however much they may claim otherwise. This was explicitly demonstrated during the MPs’ expenses claims investigation in 2008/9 when an MP claimed for a home cinema system and when challenged said “All claims relate to my parliamentary work on behalf of my constituents.”

To paraphrase Steven Covey, it is very hard to talk your way out of something you have behaved your way into.


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