Business Advice

An organisation’s core values erode with time

Michel Hogan /

Your purpose and values are central to your organisation’s identity. How well you employ them sits at the foundation of your brand result.

Robert Greene’s new book The Laws of Human Nature has a lot to say about the character and the nature of values. He’s talking about individuals. However, it’s easy to see how his observations can also apply to organisations.

From Greene’s book: “As we get older life tends to weaken us. Our empathy is harder to hold on to. If we are reflexively generous and open to everyone we meet, we can end up in a lot of trouble. Confidence without self-awareness and control can become grandiosity. Without conscious effort, these strengths will tend to wear down or turn into weaknesses. What this means is that the weakest parts of our character are the ones that create habits and compulsive behaviour, because they do not require effort of practice to maintain …”

New organisations dive into a future brimming with hope and optimism, holding values they say they believe in. As time passes, they may have early success and continue to grow, and an identity emerges. Then their environment becomes more complex and challenging to navigate. Decisions become harder to make with more moving pieces and parts, and promises get harder to keep.

This landscape is where the mettle of the organisation’s values — of their character — is tested. As Greene notes “life tends to weaken us” and often those early values begin to erode.

Yet while incremental attrition of time is kryptonite for values, conscious effort and habits are the sun. For it is in the unheroic work where values are often absent, yet most valuable.

I often describe values as ‘how we do things around here’, and by that measure, it’s easy to see the impact of that attrition. Because the first crumbling doesn’t show up in the big stuff. It starts at the edges, with people who don’t know how the values apply to them and their everyday actions and decisions.

The person at CBA selling consumer credit insurance to the student who wasn’t eligible for it wasn’t thinking about the value integrity — where we do what is right. (Set aside the insanity of having ‘lying’ values.)

They were thinking about selling more insurance. Because that’s what the person next to them was doing and the person above them was telling them to do. At that moment the habit was to sell more, not sell right. The value was nothing more than a poster on the wall.

For your values to be how you do things, you’ve got to invest time and effort in maintaining behaviours that support them. It’s a daily effort of: 

  • Understand your values;
  • Talk about them with everyone in your organisation;
  • Make a conscious daily effort;
  • Help them understand how to use them in their work;
  • Bring them into conversations about the little things, especially about the little things;
  • Call out and replace habits that weaken them; and
  • Repeat.

And a quick note to close.

Last week I talked about spam creep with a promise for some ideas this week on how to get permission from people to contact them about your business, products or services. I have a few, however, to be more useful I’m doing some crowdsourcing for ways other people collect explicit permission. So that article will be next week. See you then.

NOW READ: Keeping your promises starts with how you make them

NOW READ: “The push and pull of purpose”: Why an organisation’s good intentions will always be bad for someone

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Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com.

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