Stand by your values. Don't trample them.
Updated: Feb 10
If you haven’t ever seen the HBO series on President John Adams, you should consider giving it a try. I don’t know what brought it to mind earlier this week but somehow it surfaced and one of Adams’s lines stood out, “Facts are stubborn things”. Adams was arguing in a trial and as he attempted to sway an impassioned jury, this was one of the lines he offered up. The people of Boston at this point wanted one thing to be true emotionally but stubborn facts kept emerging that pointed at another reality.
Our emotions are powerful things which can in the moment overwhelm our clear thinking. Being in the values business nowadays it struck me that values in one way are like facts. Our values, while more intangible, are things about ourselves we hold as important to who we are. They are guidelines around what it means to feel and act like ourselves. The tricky part is if we haven’t been guided to identify them they can remain abstract and therefore it is easier to move away from what feels like our best self.
A piece by a former executive at Google highlights the struggle that exists as these organizations between the noble principles upon which many were founded and the pressure to hit short-term financial growth targets. The author cites one of Google’s infamous operating principles, “Don’t be evil”, and says it feels more like lip service these days than something that is followed. He threw out a couple specific examples, one concerning an artificial intelligence project with the Chinese government, which would help track its citizens and another in Saudi Arabia that “helps" men track the women in their family.
The specific projects aside I found myself thinking, what would I define as “evil”? I imagine if I asked ten people to each give me five examples of what they believe to be evil, there would be a good deal of overlap and some outliers. I wonder if Google ever brought greater clarity to this statement? Did they write down examples of what it looked like to act in good vs. evil ways? How might they spot and redirect behavior if it began to show signs of “evil”? And if they did write these examples down did they put them into organizational policies and employee evaluation metrics? After all, what gets measured is what gets done.
"Many companies have value statements, but often these written values are vague and ignored. The real values of a firm are shown by who gets rewarded or let go”
A stubborn reality Google faces is how to remain (or become again) the organization they sought to be in the beginning while managing the pressure of Wall Street. While growth isn’t a bad thing, I think they should be asking, “What if anything are we not willing to do to grow? Are there ways we could use our resources and knowledge that we will not?” Google’s founding purpose is to, “organize the world’s information”, but I wonder how many people take pride in organizing it so that one group may surveil another?
The reason why it’s important to define the values that reflect your organizations when it’s at its best is they act as guardrails that help us stay true to who we are. Research from behavioral economist Dan Ariely shows when we’re made more aware of our moral compass through specific reminders and nudges, we decrease the likelihood of committing transgressions.
We are at an exciting moment in society where technology and insights are enabling us to dramatically improve the quality of life for people. But disruptive growth without any anchoring into values and ethics can become reckless if it remains unchecked. I’ve always appreciated the line from Maria Popova, “We need both disruption and stewardship to move forward”. Stewardship is the tether that challenges disruption to be thoughtful and considerate.
The fortunate business reality of values is honoring them does not require us to forsake profit and growth. Trust is invaluable in business. Whether you work diligently to have a trusted brand or to be a client's trusted advisor, this is a significant mover. But what is trust? It exists when we believe an organization means what it says. When its actions reflect its words. When trust is high in a business, clients become less focused on price and employees are less likely to depart simply for a pay increase. Organizations with high trust levels are shown to outperform the S&P 500 by a factor of 3. Your values, when operationalized into your business, help anchor you in place and maintain the trust you have built.
Have you taken the time to identify the values that anchor you in your work?