Why Values in the Workplace Don’t Work

Since identifying and following my own values my life has changed immeasurably.  Not happier necessarily, but I am now truly engaged in what I do and experience a lot of meaning.  If you asked me today whether this life is what I would choose I would not hesitate to say yes.  6 years ago, I would have been stunned into silence.

My experience of values in the workplace is very different.  The usual approach is for a management team to identify the organisation’s values in a darkened room or at a ‘team away day’ in a hotel just off the M4.  Then, the values are declared via an exciting combination of communications experts, office posters and mouse mats.

What follows is the ’embedding’ phase.  This means identifying what behaviours the organisation wants to see to demonstrate each value.  Very often they will identify what ‘good’ behaviour looks like and what ‘excellent’ behaviour looks like.  These behaviours will be embedded into competency frameworks, which are then used to assess each member of staff at appraisal time, and help the organisation find the right cultural ‘fit’ with new recruits.

That, in my experience, is best practice.  And it is utterly useless.

The result is usually a sense of incomprehension (at best), and at worst cynicism.  It leads not to engagement, but a sort of dull compliance, coupled with an acute sense of injustice if a manager breaches the behavioural code.

From an ACT perspective, this is easily understood.  Because these are not values being implemented, but what is known as pliance.   Pliance is where…”wanting to be good or please others dominates over one’s direct, personal experience of what works.”  Pliance (taken from the word compliance) is therefore a form of rule-governed behaviour which does not take into account context.

Rule governed behaviour may be useful in some contexts, but it also leads to a kind of insensitivity to the environment which can harm performance and rob the individual of a sense of autonomy and control – both critical to engagement.

Put simply, values work in organisations is usually not values work.  It is a form of managerial control masquerading as values work.  It is more accurately described as pliance, or rule-governed behaviour, which leads to disengagement and an insensitivity to one’s environment.  Both of these will harm performance and wellbeing.

And both can be avoided.

7 thoughts on “Why Values in the Workplace Don’t Work

  1. Well put, Rob.

    And glad to see this – which confirms my impression- in print.

    I’ll put in on my FB page, as it IS an important message!

  2. Best reference to pliance I have seen in a while – takes it out of my little books on behavior analysis & puts it into a context I recognize all too well. The last line – “And both can be avoided” – makes me think I need to come back & look at some other posts on this site when I have time.

  3. Randy, sincere thanks for your comment and interaction. My next post is going to cover how an ACT / functional contextualist definition of values can help organisations implement values more effectively. I would love your comments on that when it goes up!

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