On Values

Yesterday I read a quote on LinkedIn that I loved:

You can tell the values of an organization by the worst behavior that it tolerates.

It reminded me of a presentation that I saw by a guy who had successfully grown a number of start-ups (it may have been the COO of Digital Ocean), in which he talked about how to scale up your start-up. If I remember correctly, he talked about the importance of values and how, when you start an organization, you don’t need to have elaborate codes of conduct. Instead, leadership needs to articulate the values that are important to the organization and model the behaviors that reflect those values, including taking action when behaviors occur that don’t reflect those values.

Look at your work environment: what are your values there? How often do your leaders talk about them with the rest of the organization? Do they model their behaviors on these values? What’s the worst behavior that they tolerate? What excuses do they make?

There are many organizations out there that start with good intentions – the founder begins the company with his or her values and, while the company is small and it’s not unusual for the employees to spend time with the founder and see and hear him / her living those values. Those employees will remember what they see and become the keepers of the stories that describe and inspire those values in the newer employees.

Then the company grows and the leader begins to focus on growing the financial assets of the organization, on building the future. Maybe they turn the reins over to people they trust, VPs of Human Resources, COOs… The company grows and the “values” turn into a code of conduct, legal protection for the organization in case someone gets caught acting in a way that puts the company at risk of lawsuit or legal penalty. Maybe the soul of the organization continues, maybe the storykeepers continue sharing the stories that illustrate the values, and most employees still aspire to work in a place where that’s the way people treat each other and treat the company’s customers. Occasionally a bad apple emerges and is quickly exposed and pruned away; often they self-select out.

Maybe the company becomes very large and successful; maybe it gets too big to change quickly and faces disruptive challenges. The fun of growing something from nothing has ceased – running a mature organization requires different skills than starting one — and the founder moves on to give back, to grow his or her legacy in a different way, and other leaders step in. Leaders who say, Yes, those are our values but… but we need to get this ship back on track; but we need to make changes to allow us to become more profitable; but whatever.

And that’s when you start seeing the bad behavior, the worst behavior that the organization will tolerate.

And how they justify that acceptance: because he is bringing much needed change; because she is making money for us; because the chairman of the board believes in him/her. Sometimes you see this behavior at the top – a CEO who screams at an Uber driver; Senior VPs who hide data breaches from customers and regulators; sexual harassment of women. Or maybe the worst behavior isn’t happening at the top – maybe it’s happening in the middle. Managers or directors who micro-manage their teams, making ridiculous demands and running them down when they disappoint fear-induced perfectionism. When employees complain to HR, HR gaslights them, tells them that no one else has complained about that behavior because HR’s job is protecting the organization. Protecting the organization from previously loyal employees who remember what it was like to work with at a company with values that meant something and that everyone followed.

When the myth dies, the stories change. Storykeepers begin sharing cautionary tales or tell stories of one brief shining moment in Camelot. Or they go silent, disappearing into the woodwork until their position is eliminated, or maybe they retire early, or maybe they quit.

And this is what they’re quitting: not a manager who treats them in a way that is incompatible with values that they believe in, but a company that accepts that behavior and places the continuation of the organization above the values that made the company great to begin with.

After that, it isn’t long.

How often have we seen this? We can see it now in the stores we used to love to shop in and no longer enjoy visiting. We can see it religious, non-profit, and union organizations. We see it in government.

Just when we think we’ve seen the worst behavior that we can possibly accept, it gets worse.

The funny thing is that after these organizations come down, what happens to the leaders who behaved badly or tolerated the behavior? If they’re at a high enough level, they take a golden handshake and retire. Or they take another leadership position or a board position at another company and another and another.

Bad behavior spreads at the top.

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