Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Whisky Priests and Priestesses

Key Points   

1. Humans are essentially pragmatic-like most animals
2. Behaviour says more about people than what they say
3. Are our organisational values just weasel words?
4. Do we as leaders reinforce our organisational values or just reach for the whiskey bottle?

In an episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey quips to the Minister, Jim Hacker, ‘Well, all government policy is wrong but frightfully well carried out’. Humphrey, as a career public servant is making the point that he would be a raving lunatic if he actually believed in government policy given that governments have such competing philosophies and interests. He agrees with Hacker that he is indeed a moral vacuum but insists he has to be in order to survive. Jim Hacker ends up compromising his values in the episode and manages his dissonance with a bottle of whisky: he too a moral vacuum.

Of course this is not entirely a true self-assessment because they are both pragmatists, which is a legitimate world-view. Their moral positions are able to shift with the wind and the tide where the end trumps the means as a matter of course. Whether moral pragmatism is good for the soul is another issue not for these pages.

Most people would probably get agitated if you suggested that they are probably pragmatic and that we do not always do what we think we believe or at least what we say we believe. Humans like to be thought well of. As the famous psychologist Albert Ellis said, we are basically love slobs. Appearing to have acceptable values helps to be liked or even admired and is essential to living in groups. It is part of the human experience to present a good picture of ourselves and it is a picture that we mostly believe in, even when evidence is brought to the contrary. But, sadly, I think homo sapiens is a pretty pragmatic species, as are most animals I suspect, even if they appear to have quite strong value positions. What we say is not necessarily what we do.

The indicator for this belief is found in watching people’s behaviour. Humans find it difficult to live with cognitive dissonance, where values and behaviours are not aligned. Our behaviour gives it all away because we act out our values. You are what you do. And sometimes what you don’t do, such as turning a blind eye or ignoring the evidence. It is rare for me to really believe what people say-I’d much rather watch what they do before making a judgement. People will tell me, for example, that they value their health but then drink excessively or not slip, slop, slap. They say they value their children above everything else but spend little time with them or behave negatively. We find people who say they value safety highly and may even be safety managers but they speed excessively in their cars, mow the lawn without shoes or shirt, and climb on the damp roof at home without a harness. This disparity between what we say we believe and what we do accounts for the general scepticism regarding attitude surveys about just about anything. It is much more important to watch people’s behaviours, if you want to know what they really believe.

It is organisations, though, that take the cake for not enacting what they espouse to be. I’m sure most of you can rattle off the weasel words that are found in many organisational strategic plans or on the back of the tea room door, nicely laminated. Integrity, honesty, valued employees, communication, respect, positive relationships, and so on-you can probably add many more to the list. But so often we find that the behaviours enacted, particularly by the so-called leaders in an organisation, bear no resemblance to the espoused values. I apologise to those organisations where this is not the case and where the values are appropriately lived. I love just spending time in organisations watching what happens, chatting to people about what they do and how things are. You have to spend time in an organisation to find out what it really believes. To this end the ethnographers are on the right track, I think, when it comes to understanding culture.

My watching has revealed all sorts of ways in which leaders and people in organisations will tolerate behaviour that is inconsistent with the espoused values. But of course! What leader is going to say that, ‘we value bullies’, ‘we do not value our people at all, they are nothing but canon fodder’, ‘don’t communicate an information of value’, ‘don’t allow people to participate in decision making’? Rather, we say the positive but then enact the negative, or at least turn a blind eye. Appropriate values, of course are important.. One of the best ways to open this issue in an organisation is to ask people to translate a value into behaviours. For example, the question might become, ‘How do you know respect when you see it?’ Tell me what people are doing in a safe workplace, is another favourite. It’s fun to ask managers/leaders this sort of question and see how it gets translated. It is this translation of values into behaviour that is essential because interpretation is no longer an issue. And, as we know, if you want to change people’s values then change their behaviours. This becomes more likely if we know what is expected of us. It also provides a focus for reflection and, hopefully reflexivity, as we seek to understand our true inner selves: as per Carl Jung.

The real proof of the pudding, of course, is the extent to which leaders in an organisation will act when their people are not behaving appropriately. Do they do something, perhaps make themselves unpopular with an individual or a group? Do they speak up? Or do they reach for the whisky bottle and bemoan their moral vacuum: their pragmatism?