Corporate value statements useless, perhaps harmful

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By Harold Morgan

My odd experiences now include the strange exercise of an appeals hearing for state government employees. Everything favors the state. The hearing officer sits at a table facing the door. Flanking and facing the officer are two tables, one for the employee (and lawyer) and one for the bureaucrats, a lawyer and a paralegal. Spare. Empty. Surreal. Totally tilted to the state.
Strip everything — nice words and thick employee manuals — and the room embodies a statement of ultimate values to state employees. Something like: We are all powerful; you are an insect.
The context here — 10 reasons to not define corporate values — comes from Glenda Eoyang of Minneapolis, founding executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute.
Lest anyone go parochial and sling accusations of me kneeling before uninformed outsiders, as did the critics of the Public Education Department consultants, Eoyang knows New Mexico. Her degree is from St. John’s College in Santa Fe. She chaired the college alumni association, making periodic trips here, and the spiritual home of complexity study is the Santa Fe Institute.
By “corporate,” I mean large organizations, public or private. For me, corporate value and mission statements are vague, vacuous and vapid.
Reason number one to not define corporate values is that such statements “are an invitation to lie in public,” Eoyang says in an issue of the Institute’s Info-Letter.
The rest of the list starts with (2) the observation that we feel good when we talk about values, but nothing changes. Then, (3) values conversations damp difference; (4) they tend to perpetuate cultural bias; (5) they mask or directly represent the bias of the dominant group; (6) they mask reality and encourage skepticism (I believe because of being dishonest).
Values statements (7) may be championed but not lived (do as I say not as I do); (8) the few cannot determine the values of the many; (9) they feed our comfort in the stability of the past, and, finally (10) if you’ve seen one values statement, you’ve seen them all.
Eoyang offers a different approach, which, of course, she would be happy to help implement. How about, she says, “shared inquiry about: simple rules that guide collective action, similarities and differences, opportunities for action, wicked issues, stakeholder needs and intelligence, practical, powerful actions” and more.
What we don’t need are hackneyed mission statements on wall plaques and two actions of senior management of a large (for New Mexico) company where I worked. First, after a massive rebranding identity campaign, the top guys kept their old style business cards. Hmm, I wondered, are there commitment issues here?
Then after the company was sold, the CEO informed the media representative (me) that it was business as usual, that nothing had changed. Sure. You bet, boss. This lie presented me a choice. Quit or be quiet and lie, too. I thought I needed the money so I got quiet and lied. “Success with Honor” is a motto, a mission statement actually, about values. Coming from the Penn State football program, it contrasts pretty words and ugly realities.
My son-in-law, a 20-year Army enlisted man, offers a values statement, “Suck it up and do what you have to do.” That seems to work.

Harold Morgan
© 2011 New Mexico
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