My recent post, “Why Do Evil Leaders Flourish in Some Organizations” struck a chord or at least a nerve for many, as the many insightful comments quickly outstripped the value of the original post.  Thanks to all that jumped in and shared on this topic.

On the heels of what turned out to be a deluge of good thoughts on why some leaders and some people get away with less than agreeable (to the rest of us) behaviors in the workplace, I keep coming back to the topic of Values as a core issue.

Some people watch birds and some watch people, and in one of my odd quirks, I watch values.  Rather, I have made it a habit to ask people about their firm’s values and the role that those values play in defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior inside organizations.

The results of my informal polling as well as my formal surveying (as part of culture assessments) indicates that for many organizations, values exist as nice statements in a frame with little meaning or use in day-to-day business dealings.  Based on my own travels, firms where values are both clear and they are connected in people’s minds to acceptable and unacceptable forms of behavior are the minority.

In a fascinating article on the aberrant cultures in many law firms (please withhold your chuckles), author David Maister offers the following regarding values:

“The single biggest source of trust in an organization occurs when everyone can be depended upon to act in accordance with a commonly held, strictly observed set of principles. Examples of such principles are “Our clients’ interests always come first; if we serve our clients well, our own success will follow” and “We have no room for those who put their personal interests ahead of the interests of the firm and its clients.” (Both of these, by the way, are from Goldman Sachs.)

It is important to note that commercial benefits do not come simply from believing in or encouraging these principles but from actually achieving an organization where partner behavior is always consistent with them. When this is the case, less time is wasted in internal negotiations and posturing, strategies are implemented, and true teamwork results.”

And the payoff:

“Law firms appear unable to achieve this level of ideological consistency. They will buy into principles—firms can have very high ideals as long as they remain ideals—but they have difficulty with the concept of enforcement. Firms are seemingly willing to adopt strategies and statements of values and mission, but are usually unwilling to specify what the penalty would be for noncompliance. Not surprisingly, that rarely results in effective implementation.”

Mr. Maister sums up very eloquently the contradiction between having principles and enforcing principles in law firms.  Unfortunately, this is the same contradiction that exists in many and perhaps most organizations. The values have no teeth.

Can We Change?

A good friend of mine read the “Evil Leaders” post the other day and offered the depressing comment that sounded something like this: “Doesn’t it ever bother you that you write and teach all of these good things about leadership and values and at the end of the day, none of it makes a difference and human nature will still allow the dysfunctional or evil leaders to flourish.”

If this were an audio blog, the sound you hear would be a man screaming.

While I’ll grudgingly allow that changing human nature may be outside of scope, I have complete faith that the right behaviors can be encouraged and the wrong behaviors discouraged by putting teeth into a firm’s values.  Of course, first, someone has to send the firm’s leaders the memos that values count.

One of my readers and a good colleague from a former life is responsible for my values-obsession.  We taught a workshop to our first-time supervisors and leaders on how to leverage the values as a powerful leadership tool.  It was fascinating to watch the lights come on as these early-career leaders understood the power of values in dealing with topics like recruiting, managing conflict, encouraging development and driving innovation. 

If just one of those leaders from that first group carries that philosophy forward to her future teams and organizations, and ensures that the values have meaning and teeth, we will have made a difference.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

In case you are like my friend and just a bit cynical on our ability to change, consider the power of the still-forming backlash to the excesses and abuses of leadership and the complete lack of values and character that have combined to create the mess that we all find ourselves swimming in today.  My money is on a surge in the value of Values.  

What about you?  Without looking at the frame on the wall in the conference room, what are your firm’s values?  When was the last time you actually thought about actively applying those values to your tough decisions?

It’s not too late to start.