Core Values, Devalued

Article excerpt

Imagine a workforce that's wholly committed to a set of values that constrains their behavior, but leaves executives free to do as they please.

Why aren't employees happy? It's a question organizations constantly face and try to address, in part, through motivational programs and books. In the view of E.L. Kersten, such efforts are wasted and only compound the problem of employee dissatisfaction. In his radical new book, The Art of Demotivation, Kersten offers his vision of a new workplace, powered not by self-confident and empowered employees but by workers who have been "radically demotivated." In this excerpt, Kersten explains that a first step is the creation of a collusive relationship with employees, "one that systematically suppresses acknowledgment of the dynamics that violate the relationship in order to maintain the relationship." The beginning of that collusive relationship is a very special set of core values.

A VISIONARY ORGANIZATION'S core values must be authentically believed and lived-particularly by the organization's leadership-if they are to provide their intended inspiration and guidance to the employees. Since Radical Demotivation(TM) replaces inspiration and guidance with collusion as the intended purpose for articulating the company's core values, authenticity is unnecessary, and in some cases, it may be an obstacle. It is far more important that the stated values be acceptable to the employees than that they be believed by the executives. This will not only lead the employees to accept them as being authentic, it will make it easy for executives to violate them. Along that line, I have developed a few guidelines for stating core values that accelerate the process of Radical Demotivation(TM):

Guideline 1: The development of your company's core values should he outsourced to consultants. Executives are often tempted to perform this task themselves, but when they do, the values they articulate tend to have too many references to "profitability" and "shareholder value"-things for which their employees have no regard. Consequently, they diminish the values' collusive potential. In contrast, a good consulting company with a core competency in public relations can craft a set of values that the average wage-earner will find seductively appealing.

Guideline 2: Core values should not he anchored to any transcendent social values. Some companies are part of industries that have the potential to fulfill values that virtually all of us hold. For example, pharmaceutical companies can serve the public good by helping to eradicate disease and relieve pain. Though it is tempting to refer to socially transcendent values in the statement of the company's core value, you run the risk of creating a vision for your employees that is larger than the company.

The problem with this is that it makes employees feel good about themselves, and despite the apparent benefits, it has the unintended consequence of reinforcing their narcissism. Fortunately, most of you own or run companies with little, if any, redeeming social value; they exist primarily to make you wealthy, and to provide access, for both you and your family, to the stature and respect that only money can buy. Therefore your value statements should be peppered with phrases like "quality products," "industry leader," "innovative" and "customer satisfaction." These expressions have the benefit of generating widespread assent, while at the same time being devoid of any concrete semantic content.

Guideline 3: Core values should be stated as ambiguously as possible. Stating your values ambiguously has two key benefits: (a) Employees will tend to infuse ambiguous statements with their own meanings, thereby generating widespread assent among people who hold significantly different understandings of the statements; and (b) the multiple meanings afforded to an ambiguous statement make it more difficult to hold you accountable for violating the value. …