What are your values? Further reflections on the VW mess

What are your values? Further reflections on the VW mess

Let’s talk about values – again.

In my article about VW’s big mess last week I noted that central to the big mess was a fundamental misalignment between the company’s stated values and their actions. Which got me thinking about the importance of values in the whole scheme of things.

And I’m not alone. There is a whole subset of consulting focused just one helping organisations decide what their values are. Horrifically, I even heard about a software program that will tell you what your values are after you answer a set of questions – seriously!

It’s not news that you need to have a set of values to guide your organisation on its way. But the relationship between what the values are and brand is less well understood. So after some serious thought and in an effort to help drive a deeper understanding here’s my take on the whole values mix. With a few observations that might help your organisation avoid the kind of holes that VW (and countless other organisations) have fallen into.

So, let’s start with the holy trinity of honesty, integrity and trust. There is barely a values conversation I have that doesn’t include one or all of these. They are what I think of as meta-values, a bit like a membrane that encircles society and helps it function. We can’t operate or trade without them being in place.

On some level we are pretty honest (white lies, sociopathic criminals and many politicians aside). We try to do what we say and act in a way that means others will want to keep engaging with us and feel good about it. (As an aside, if you want to explore the idea of trust a bit more deeply there is a great article on the Brain Pickings site on the topic.)

So in general I look at them as somewhat of a given – if you’ve got to say it then…

Next layer down you strike the mish-mash of aspirations, good intentions, things we care a bit about and things designed to make others think we are good guys. These are what often pass as values but in reality are more what I call principles (you may call them something else).

Principles are things you care about or think you do, but that you will trade in if circumstances dictate (for example I’d say environmental sustainability at VW fell into this category). These are the things that give way under pressure. You know them – those things that when push comes to shove, move aside. The “but” values. “No, I don’t agree with, but” or “Yes, I know they are, but”.

We all have them. They can be important drivers and have a big impact on organisations. They are relevant to the discussion – in their place.

Which brings us to values. I call them non-negotiables (with thanks to Jim Collins for the term). They are the things that when push comes to shove, push back. They are not open for trade – ever. They are what you hope to find in your team and if they aren’t there you work like crazy to make sure they know how important they are. They are enduring and rarely change. They are the basis for how you behave and make decisions.

And inside your values are the things that are your DNA. They answer the question: What is your nature? These are the key things to hire for because if people don’t share these then it’s just not going to work out. They are the basis of the culture – that maddening, capricious, difficult to define thing that is the engine of who you are.

So we’re way beyond aspirations on posters on the wall now. Really understanding this combination of principles, non-negotiables and DNA that make up your values mix is work – but isn’t everything that matters?

It takes time to really peel back the layers and requires a willingness to look at your actions and decisions for what they are not what you want to think they are. Not many manage it.

What does all this have to do with your brand? I’ve written previously about the ways values relate to brand but, in short, brand is the result of the promises you keep. Keeping those promises is the result of your actions and decisions. Your actions and decisions are shaped and driven by your values.

In short, there is no strong, resilient brand without a clear understanding of the values you have (not the ones you’d like to have).

See you next week.

Get your brand questions answered by posting them on twitter @michelhogan or emailing me at [email protected]

Michel is an Independent Brand Analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make. She also publishes a blog at michelhogan.com. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.


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