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Blog Bernard Letendre

Corporate culture

Don’t worry, we’ll iron it out of you

Most companies espouse, in one form or another, a trifecta of Vision, Mission and Values.

For some, such devices of contemporary management are essential “for inspiring people to change the way they relate to their work, each other and themselves by providing them with a sense of both communal and individual purpose (‘meaning’).” (1) For other, more cynical observers, they are nothing more than a form of charismatic prophecy that requires of employees that they “radically alter their relationships – to the organization, to customers, to each other, to themselves – to fit in with what is in effect a divinely ordained new order.” (2)

I personally abhor any notion of intellectual conformism, of being told what I should think and what I should believe. “We hired you because you’re different”, some organizations seem to say, “but don’t worry, we’ll eventually iron it out of you”. Like many, I have felt, in the past, this kind of (mostly) subtle pressure to blend in; to leave the real me at home and bring only a bland copy of myself into the office every morning. I would not want to go back.

Thankfully, the days of blind compliance and bland conformity are fast receding. Most successful companies understand that they need employees who can think critically, are not afraid of challenging the status quo and seek a large measure of autonomy in how they do their work. Leaders cannot realistically expect such employees to just blindly accept pronouncements from the top. You want creativity? Encourage people to think for themselves.

Corporate values, like our own personal values, invite rational examination. Rather than a kind of Orwellian mantra to be repeated mindlessly by employees – “Four legs good, two legs bad” – values should be actively interrogated. Instead of living only on posters and web sites, they should be openly pondered, discussed and debated: What is the actual meaning of this value? Do I subscribe to this value and if so, why? Why is it important to the success of the organization? To me, this kind of rational engagement with values of any kind is the first and indispensable step in bringing them to life.

But what if, having interrogated the values (or mission, or vision) of the organization that you work for, you were to find them somehow incompatible with your own? Well, I don’t know for you but for me, there would be no appeal whatsoever in working for an organization whose values would be contrary to my own (e.g. “We will abuse our customers, crush our employees and destroy shareholder value”).

Having said that, all the corporate values that I’ve come across over the years were completely unobjectionable, if a tad formulaic. The real problem with values is not that they’re somehow objectionable. It’s the fact, rather, that they’re not embedded in the organizational culture; that they elicit only apathy or, worse perhaps, that leaders and employees pay only lip service to them – although sometime with great external displays of enthusiasm. Hence my belief in deliberately engaging with values as an exercise of reason as a first step towards putting them in practice with genuine conviction.

Strong corporate values are like the sturdy struts of a tent – a very large tent that can comfortably welcome within it a multitude of people from many different backgrounds. In an age of rapid innovation fueled by empowered, self-managed agile teams, Vision, Mission and Values offer employees at all levels of the organization a liberating framework that allows them to free themselves from the tedium of play-by-play bureaucratic control. It’s a way for the organization of telling everyone: “You can be who you are and as long as you stay within the broad parameters of these beacons that have been set (and hopefully that you believe in), we know that you will get to the right destination.”

I can’t think of anything more empowering.