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Managing People; Living the Values
by Kevin Dwyer

There has been an unedifying politicised debate in Australia about Australian values. It is a debate about who has them, who does not and seeks to ostracise those who are considered not to have them.

It is a debate where the majority of the participants have demonstrated the values of ignorance, intolerance, opportunism and political wilfulness whilst claiming to support values of fairness, mateship and egalitarianism.

That's the problem with values. They are demonstrated by what we do, not by what we say.

No matter which community we belong to, whether it is our family, our school, our club or our employing organisation, we cannot escape demonstrating our values each day.

Our values come from our beliefs which form generally at an early age dependent on our experiences and upbringing and it is difficult to impose them upon us.

My school had a statement about values incorporated into a Latin phrase under the crest of the school. We were not taught Latin, so that made it difficult for any of us even in our formative years to be influenced by the school statement about values.

Our school made an attempt at defining the school's values and made a poor job of it by writing it in a language none of us understood. However, the errors of my school are nothing compared with errors being perpetrated in the name of values by organisations in both the public and private sector.

The majority of organisations now have mission, vision and values statements. The aim of these statements is to cascade from what we are here for, to what do we want to achieve, to what personal values should we hold as an organisation and how we behave as individuals.

The purpose of such cascading statements is to free organisations from controls and empower them to work for a common goal with a common purpose and a common set of behaviours.

Introducing values should be about leading the organisation through values rather than controls. Value statements, therefore, should be a means of empowerment.

However, a 2002 survey by the American Management Association reported that whilst eighty six percent of all organisations surveyed had specifically written or stated values, seventy percent of respondents had observed micromanagement behaviours.

Further, more than fifty percent of respondents had observed failure to give credit, dissension in senior management ranks, hidden agendas and dictatorial management behaviours.

For organisations to do more than pay lip service to values as a decoration on the office wall, they must institute a programme of empowerment. Introducing a real programme of empowerment is not a light task.

Implementing an empowerment programme requires an understanding of processes which can be delegated, based on the risk profile of the organisation, and ensuring the people to whom the process is delegated have both the competence and the authority to execute the process.

An empowerment programme working within a set of core values which underpin the vision of the organisation and reflect the mission of the organisation is a powerful combination.

Adorning walls, websites and stationery with "our values" without a real purpose is waste of time and money and potentially divisive in an organisation.

The first person at risk in an organisation when values are paid lip service is the leader of the organisation.

Leaders who communicate a value set for an organisation must be seen to live the values themselves or face (usually) unspoken accusations of hypocrisy. The leader who clearly flouts the often used value of integrity by some capricious act has no one but themselves to blame, but it can be much more subtle than that.

Values such as "being open and honest" will at some time run into the problem of client and employee confidentiality. One person's view of confidential information will be another person's view of being closed and dishonest. Without clear processes and policies to work with inside a value system of openness and honesty, the interpretation of the value is open to all.

Moreover, values, because they are expressed as words, live a life of their own and find different meanings at different levels and functions of the organisation. The meanings attached to the words expand. The leader will be judged by their behaviour, not only against their intended meaning of the written words but also the expanded sets of meanings.

To make values work, organisations need to not only communicate them widely and often and build a framework of processes and policies which embrace empowerment, they must open the organisation to feedback from stakeholders about observed behaviour. This is particularly so for the leader.

Values are only valuable when we live by them. Our values are demonstrated by what we do, not by what we think we do and not by a plaque on the wall.

Kevin Dwyer may be contacted at

Kevin is the founder of Change Factory, a company which helps organisations who do not like their business outomes get better outcomes through changing people's behaviour. To find out more about Change Factory and see more articles visit


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