Values: A Double-Edged Sword


What happens when they go uber-wrong?

When new employees join Uber, they are asked to subscribe to 14 core company values, which include making bold bets, being “obsessed’ with the customer, and “always be hustlin’.” The company particularly emphasizes meritocracy, the idea that the best and brightest will rise to the top based on their efforts, even if it means stepping on colleagues to get there. The top priority: achieve growth and revenue targets. Those values have helped propel Uber to one of Silicon Valley’s biggest success stories. Yet, the focus on pushing for the best result has also fueled its “toxic culture” and present troubles: crippled by complaints that it condones sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation against those who complain, shedding executives and board members like so much unwanted freight, a cutthroat, win-at-any-costs culture where workers gain advantage by tearing each other down. And on Tuesday, its CEO, Travis Kalanick, has announced plans to take a leave of absence to get his act together. Poor embattled Uber.

 

After months of research into the inner workings of the company, US Attorney general Eric Holder this week published a report with recommendations for what Uber could do to redeem itself https://goo.gl/zwGhJA. Central to the report was a recommendation to “Reformulate Uber’s 14 Cultural Values,” to reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors.

 

Corporate value statements—those things you often see engraved in Plexiglas in corporate lobbies—exist to remind a company of its purpose in the wider world, of its very human reason to exist. But they must move beyond the lobby to act as the glue to bind employees together like a family, a beacon to steer towards when the going gets rough, and a code of ethics to hold employees to a higher standard. And yet, because company value statements are—necessarily—broad and open (or in Uber’s case vague and meaningless), a company’s values can be difficult for employees to translate into day-to-day behavior. What, exactly is meant by “super-pumpedness,” and does that mean downing several cans of Red Bull before clocking on, or something else entirely? And what happens when colleagues have different interpretations of the values? How easy is it for the language of a company’s values to translate into action for the boots-on-the-ground employee? How can a company ensure that its values are lived, not just talked about?

 

Innovation Arts knows that company culture crises are often an accumulation of small transgressions by employees who do not understand what the corporate values mean for the day-to-day. Or that trouble begins when the values fail to communicate what top brass believes their company to be. In our experience, a company’s values come to life within the company culture, which tends to bubble up from the bottom, from the lowliest employee to the CEO. If a company’s stated values include respect and diversity, then employees will be respectful of one another, form teams with people not like themselves, and reach outside their own sphere for new ideas. When your company values and culture promote “be yourself” and “toe-stepping,” then, well, just ask Uber what happens.

 

We have worked with a number of companies and cherished national institutions who are mindful of the impact values have on an organization, and wanted to ensure their values were meaningful for the people who follow them every day. However, admitting that you don’t quite understand them, or maybe that you interpret your corporate values differently than your colleagues can be a difficult conversation. That’s where the concept of game science can literally be a game-changer. By working with game designers, Innovation Arts has developed a new way to engage and inspire employees about their organization through our game Dilemma™ that translates an organisation’s values into day-to-day behaviours for every employee to understand and act upon. Dilemma™ employs a rigorous interview process to ensure a bespoke experience for each organization that uses it, and allows employees to put their corporate values through their paces through a series of scenarios matched with potential responses. Players earn points for responding with the action most closely tied to the intent of their company’s values—carefully avoiding the reactions born of habit or context. As much as we want to aspire to the better angels of our nature, it is a fact of modern life that we go astray, especially when time is short. Dilemma™ addresses these little slips and shortcuts, and encourages the players to talk through what a “wrong” response is, and yet, why an employee might be tempted to take the easy route. By identifying the preferred actions and the likely workarounds, what we have noticed is that the people who play Dilemma™ are more likely to talk about their company’s values in a way that is meaningful for each person, clarifying what the values are, why they exist, and how they should be enacted. Being honest enough to have an open and frank conversation about the accepted wisdom of company culture can motivate a group to own their values, and bring them to life.

 

Corporate values everywhere are a hot topic. The May 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine featured a cover story about the importance of embracing corporate values, and the impact they can have on the wider world. From automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care firms to consumer packaged goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values—not just because it makes them look good, but because employees and customers have started to insist on it. Millennials spend money in areas they believe in, and companies will simply have to respond. If you count the number of lives big companies like Facebook or Airbnb touch, they can have as much influence as a national official, so what they stand for themselves matters.

 

And that finally is what makes a company’s values so important. With global politics in a state of upheaval and trust in governments and other institutions suffering, corporations and large businesses may have to step forward to fill that gap and lead. What will ultimately differentiate those leaders is their inner motivations, their intentions. If your company intends to do good, and your employees know how to translate that into action, then it is clear on which side you will end up. What are your intentions? Are your employees living it every day, with every action, every decision? Perhaps it’s not clear whether they are engaged or not, or if your company’s values are simply words without meaning. If so, we encourage you to challenge your people to live up to what you say you stand for, to make each other better. What do you do when the chips are down, or you are in a hurry, or you are simply desperate to make that sale? We know that if you can count on your values in times of stress, then you will be able to rely upon them in times of ease. And it is possible that having a higher purpose will help a company’s profits in the long run.

 

Corporate values, like personal ones, exist to make everyone’s life better. If you enact them in small ways every day, the value compounds, and you can make a big impact.

 

Is your organisation one of the 10% that is getting it spot on with Engagement and Values, or are you looking for new ideas and support? Whether it’s about articulating the right values for your organisation, embedding them, or engaging your employees around strategic initiatives, we’d love you to get in touch to explore how design thinking, collaboration and games science such as Dilemma™ could help.

 

Innovation Arts is a globally-recognised hybrid strategy consultancy and design agency described by GQ as ‘the management consultant of the future’. Our focus is on creating the optimal conditions for diverse groups to solve, together, any complex organisational challenge. When faced with challenging disruptions, from a major new product launch to navigating a merger, the level of complexity demands more than the existing processes can handle. By implementing a design thinking-based approach, we deliver high-quality, sustainable outcomes with less risk, more certainty and in a fraction of the time compared to conventional agency approaches.
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