Value vs. Values...

I spoke to my EMBA cohort recently on the idea of values; both personal and in the workplace.  Honestly, most of the talk I stole from my two boss’s @smithgreg and @robertstam who co-authored a book called Almost Our Time in which, one of the chapters was titled, “Value vs. Values”.  I spoke about this topic and am writing about it now because I believe it is something that deserves further thought and investigation.  If you are looking for more of an in depth analysis, I’d recommend picking up a copy of the book on Amazon.  For now, let’s just explore some of the topics.

Values in the Workplace

I find it interesting when corporations talk about their values or “Values Statement”.  To me, it often seems too selfish.  Take, for example, the corporate value to always take care of the customer.  Is this a value or is this a “best practice”?  Is a business truly valuing customer satisfaction because they believe it is the right thing to do, or are they doing it so they won’t lose customers?  What about a company who values employee satisfaction?  Do they really value their employees because they believe that the human element, as it has been coined by Dow Chemical, is a fundamental truth, or are they doing so to prevent bad reviews on  My point is there is no way to prove that a company actually does value a certain thing based on a certain sense of morality, opposed to the simple economics of the situation.

Value vs. Values

Here’s why.  Values (plural) are subjective.  They have nothing to do with business, they are basically our personal preferences on the way we think things should be and the way businesses should operate.  Would we say that a company like Enron or a person like Bernie Madoff had values?  Why not?  I would argue it’s because we collectively believe that they should have behaved and run their businesses differently.  This leads me to believe that when we as American’s say the word “values”, what we are actually referring to is culture.  Our culture dictates that it is immoral to steal from and take advantage of others.

Value on the other hand is intrinsic.  By its very definition it has inherent worth.  It is not what we necessarily prefer but rather something that is regardless of our preferences.  My idea is that if businesses are based on value, they are able to operate cross culturally and not get caught up in the trap of political incorrectness that often comes with the idea of values and personal preferences.  Businesses are more likely to succeed and cross cultural lines when they base themselves on actual value opposed to values.

The Limits of Vision

I think this is an important side note.  Vision is not necessarily completely independent from the idea of values.  It seems worthwhile to address while we are looking at the topic.  The premise is this; most vision statements are too generic to be useful.  They don’t make any choices.  They also don’t set values even though that sometimes is their aim.  Instead, they are based on aspirations.  If I say my vision for company X is to “sell 1 million widgets a year so everyone can retire by the time they are 35 and we can all have hover crafts”, I’m not really saying anything.  All I’m doing is making a statement that no one can really disagree with.  It is not a vision of the future, it is a fantasy. 

This is also why vision statements cannot set the values of an organization.  Vision statements are usually top down.  The values of an organization, by nature, are set by the employees said organization hires.  Why?  Because all an organization is comprised of are its people.  Posters on a wall with inspirational phrases have nothing to do with the people that actually work there.  Some employees may actually feel that way but the bottom line is that the people of the organization, the collective, change the way the organization runs.  I could go on and on with examples but you will surely get bored.  Three words though, United Auto Workers…

Rounding it out…

Ok, it’s time to land the plane.  I’m not saying that it’s not important to have goals, it is.  I’m not saying that there is no such thing as inspirational leaders who use transformational leadership techniques to inspire their people, there surely are.  All I’m saying is that there may be actual value in value.  If we were to start basing our business ideas and business plans on value instead of aspiration and idealism, we may have better success in the business world.  There are limits to vision.  Values are subjective.  Value is, well, valuable.

Again, thanks to @smithgreg and @robertstam for allowing me to poach their material to sound smart.