The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

values, behaviours, culture – hangers, clothes, actions

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One month on from attending the Complexity and Management Conference at Roffey Park, thoughts have seasoned and resurfaced, prompted by two recent questions thrown up by current projects. First, why do values and behaviours, clearly articulated, really matter. And, secondly, how can people at all levels in large organizations be weaned off hiding in ambiguous language to avoid working through issues when culture needs to change in light of a new strategic direction?

We won’t attempt to provide a digest of the massive body of thinking around these themes and definitions. In the spirit of reflective practice and to build on Professor Ralph Stacey’s opening talk at Roffey Park last month, we’d like to summarise an observation and collect the thoughts surfaced from our take on the conference. This mainly to help us make some timely connections in our own minds across the three concepts of values, behaviour and culture. Not as empty verbal hangers but as structures that can establish a conduit for making meaning, in a specific context. 


First, an observation. When drawing up a map of what we know organizations from a wide range of sectors have undertaken around defining and living values and behaviours, we looked first at why this effort is undertaken, rather than at what shape the process took. We concluded that there are two main reasons to articulate, revisit, evolve or change stated values and behaviours: a crisis and a change of strategic direction. Understanding why creates an arc between today (what we have that needs to change) and tomorrow (what we want to become and how we want to go about this) and helps position yesterday (what are we building on, our core) as a part of the whole. It also means that in these two instances, values and behaviours play a key role in the sharp end of a businesses purpose and performance evaluation. This is not wallpaper. 

Crisis and changes in strategic direction both lead us to think about culture. What it was, is, and needs to become. And this brings us back to our thoughts on this conference, entitled “Can leaders change organisational culture? – alternatives from a complexity perspective”. A few points stand out for us:

  • When some things go wrong we call for a change in culture and point to leaders.
  • Values, according to Stacey, are not something that exists outside of us that powerful people need to run for us.
  • We often take for granted what culture means, holding deep assumptions, and Stacey referred both to Peter Senge and Edgar Schein’s thinking. When idealised, culture can be seen as something that if we all followed, the world would be a better place. However, this does not take into account complex behaviour.
  • Can culture change be managed? Is this only achieved through coercive persuasion techniques? Coerced and destabilised does not mean persuaded. Making meaning is a collaborative and fluid process not a static outcome.
  • Values in this respect are norms that emerge in social interactions, as good things to do. They motivate our behaviour, give our lives meaning and emerge from ongoing engagement with society.
  • Reminding us of George Herbert Mead, Stacey brought up the relevance of the conversation of gestures we are all caught up in, which calls out responses from others. We are, together, co-creating meaning, constantly improvising. The way we behave, and culture, is something humans achieve together.
  • Nothing is isolated, there is always a connection to other systems, always a context. Articulating and managing values, behaviours and culture based on thinking of an organization as a closed system is not a full picture.
  • If culture is knowing what to do in specific settings, the continual re-creation of tradition, how can this be deliberately changed? For example, policy changes can lead to perception changes and eventually new norms, but as part of a broader social response (e.g. seat-belt wearing, drunk driving, not smoking indoors).

So where does this collection of observations leave us in relation to the two recent questions from current projects?

Values and behaviours matter. Not as static artefacts but as prompts and conduits for members of an organisation, whatever their role, to make meaning based on guiding prompts. They are not propaganda, proceduralization, and persuasive deceit. Making sure this meaning is being made is possibly the responsibility of all members, not just leaders. It’s easy to point to the failings of faded, jaded and generic values and behaviours if they are only words, or empty hangers standing still in a corner, somewhere near the office yucca.

And at times of change (crisis or new strategic direction) weaning people off old habits such as hiding in ambiguity is a tough job. Part of this is achieved by encouraging reflection on what they are doing, not on what they ought to be doing. This reflective practice, and the powerful act of observing from a different point of view as well as their own, can allow words to be reinvested with meaning.

We’d argue that in the middle of a  triad of values, behaviour and culture lies a common effort to define what meaning lies behind words, what actions are prompted by words, and that this process itself creates engagement and new energy. 

With thanks to Douglas Board for suggesting Sabine join him at Roffey Park. 

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