Corporate values statements are pathetic, infantilising moral truisms. Discuss

When was the last time you referred to your company values sheet when facing an ethical dilemma, asks academic Dave Lewis.

by Dave Lewis
Last Updated: 03 Dec 2019

As you walk into the marble atrium you see above the reception desk, etched in stone, the corporation’s values: we put our customers first; excellence is our goal; we act with integrity; we collaborate to innovate, and so on. Have you ever seen a set of corporate values saying: put customers last; pursue mediocrity; lie daily; compete with your colleagues? 

Corporate values statements are content free, nothing more than moral truisms.  How can a set of bland statements possibly act as moral guidance to any of us, ordinary people, with our extensive and deeply held values?

The very idea that an impoverished set of truisms should shape employee behaviour is a form of infantilisation and moral outsourcing. It invites us to ignore the moral complexity of the world in which we live, to abdicate our responsibility, as if we were morally helpless, desperately seeking guidance from the codified wisdom of the HR department.

Of course this is nonsense, and none of us do. We all know, because we are grown-ups, that four or five bullet points (the typical number of values in a corporate values statement) do not get near to representing the complexity of working out the right thing to do. 

Moreover, we know that even an exhaustive list of values does not provide a formulaic answer to the question, what is it to live a good and flourishing life? 

The multifaceted nature of our moral makeup, the complex challenges we face, the need to reconcile competing and seemingly incompatible but equally right things to do - these create moral dilemmas.

In the real world, ordinary people spend their time and energy not on moral platitudes, but in the hard work of developing the habits of a virtuous life.  Each time a virtuous habit is exercised, it is exercised in the attempt to find a path between two equally good but seemingly incompatible morals. 

There are many examples. Perhaps the one most familiar to all of us is the need to follow the path of honesty at the same time as following the path of sensitivity. For the occasions when these paths seen irreconcilable, we have invented the white lie.  A decision has to be made on the extent of the lie, the words, the body language and the follow-through - if the white lie is to be effective in squaring the moral circle. 

In business, there are many other moral dilemmas. The need for transparency and the need for confidentiality; the need for competition vs cooperation; the need for courage vs safety; the need to put the customer first vs safeguarding staff wellbeing. 

For each dilemma there is no easy answer, and rarely if ever has anyone been seen turning to the corporate values statement in the annual report for salvation. We need instead to turn to our virtuous habits and exercise our judgement.

We have Aristotle to thank for our understanding of the virtues and the importance of making them habits: "Virtues are formed in a man by his doing the actions". Aristotle urges us always to seek the middle way,  to be neither miserly nor overgenerous, but liberal; neither stingy nor flashy, but magnificent; neither passive nor easy to enrage, but patient, and so on, constantly balancing between neglect and excess. 

In this way, through our own individual agency, we practise, we get feedback and we learn. We are good at working out the right thing to do and putting it into practice ourselves.  Far from being morally helpless, in need of corporate values statements to guide us through life’s dilemmas, we need to remember that we are morally empowered.

David Lewis is Programme Director for Executive Education at London Business School and co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better Leader (Kogan Page, £14.99)

Image credit: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

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