Meaning Guide

The value of meaningful values

“If your organisation actually lived its values then you probably wouldn’t need to put them on a poster on the wall”

I used to think this was a really cute quote.  I’m used to values being something the board decrees based on the culture they want, not the culture they have:

But I happen to be working at the moment with an organisation in which everyone I have (so far) spoken to agrees that their five values accurately describe their culture.

I’m finding this more than a little odd, but also helpful.  In telling the company’s story of change I can for once genuinely refer to their values with a straight face and expect something to happen as a result.  It’s a paradigmatic example of putting meaning “to work”.  Because the connection exists between the symbol (i.e. the poster on the wall) and the experience, you can use it to make stuff happen, i.e.:

Hey guys, we know that we’re this type of people, so we need to respond to this situation in this kind of way

It actually means something!

Which is lovely.  On the flipside, just because your regular corporate values poster doesn’t fit well with reality does not make it meaningless.  Without wanting to flog a dead horse (though I do seem to be saying a lot about them of late), it doesn’t sound like Carillion was doing a great job of caring, improving, delivering and achieving together before it crashed:

I, like everyone else, judge the culture not by what I see on the poster but by how I see people behave.  If the two don’t match then the only value that is conveyed to me is the organisation’s need to maintain a threshold level of background corporate waffle.

Been there anyone?




  • I once worked for a fine organisation that created a list of such values, printed on a laminated card, one of which was ‘We are a caring employer’. One day there was a strong wind which blew a load of stuff off our office roof and damaged some cars in the staff car park. A notice came round telling people to claim on their car insurance. We pointed out that this was in conflict with the stated values and the management quickly backed down and said the company would pay. So they weren’t ‘living the values’ but they did respect them, when prompted! I doubt that those values are still in place today.

  • Thanks Sally
    I love those kinds of stories – there should be a leaderboard for the most blatant / egregious episodes of values misalignments. I’m still not convinced by POSIWID (purpose of a system is what it does) but the equivalent statement for values is certainly true – the values of a system are summarised in what it actually does, not what it says would do.

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