Employees rarely need to be told what the rules are. They don’t need higher-ups telling them that they should do the right thing. Employees especially don’t need to be taught good values. That’s because they’re grownups with families and big responsibilities of their own. They know the difference between right and wrong. They’ve already internalized desirable values such as honesty, loyalty, and hard work.
Then why do so many ethics consultants feel the need to treat them like juvenile delinquents who have to be schooled in values?
Global advisor David Gebler, a nationally esteemed lawyer and thought leader on corporate ethics, says it’s because when we look at organizations that are plagued with scandals, recalls, lawsuits, PR disasters, and accidents, we mistakenly assume that the problem stems from employees who need to be taught right from wrong.
In a smart new business book for leaders, The 3 Power Values: How Commitment, Integrity, and Transparency Clear the Roadblocks to Performance (Jossey-Bass, April 2012), Gebler explains that we have been looking at the issue of values from the wrong direction. Rather than trying to teach the “right values” to managers and employees who already understand the behaviors required for the organization to succeed, leaders need to identify and remove the elements of their corporate culture that prevent employees from enacting these values. All too often, however, leaders don’t know how to diagnose the problems in their culture and clear the obstacles standing in the way of performance.
Gebler says culture drives employee behavior, not the other way around. While we would like to think that we control our decisions and actions, social norms and expectations significantly influence our behavior. He shares fascinating research showing that even the most honest people engage in small acts of dishonesty up to the point when they can no longer delude themselves. For example, we might not steal from the petty cash drawer, but we take some pens home. Managers may claim that a tough (and questionable) action was simply a “business” decision, not an “ethical” one. Or, to reach insurmountable sales goals, managers and employees may come up with the “perfect” solution: raising prices instead of production.
The Three Power Values is filled with examples of companies whose weak or toxic culture drove good people to do bad things. For example, at Johnson & Johnson, the understood directive to get product to market on tough deadlines created a culture of “Don’t ask too many questions” and resulted in a series of dangerous-drug recalls that badly sullied the company’s reputation. At BP, some believe an overemphasis on financial performance became the only metrics that mattered. Before the fatal explosion in April 2012 caused by a safety shortcut, BP’s Macondo project was more than $40 million over budget. You know the rest.
Gebler weaves intriguing real-world company examples through these pages to illustrate how higher standards by leaders bring out the best in employees, and lower standards make it easier for employees to rationalize unethical behavior. The take-away? Responsibility for the health of a company’s culture, and hence, the behavior of its employees, lies squarely in the hands of leadership.
He demonstrates how the alignment of three core leadership values–commitment, integrity, and transparency–can transform a weak culture into a strong one. And then he shows leaders how to assess the relative strength of these three values at their organization, what happens when any of the three pillars is weak, and how to change one’s leadership behavior, strategies, and attitude to bring the three into alignment.
Using more real-life company examples, Gebler helps us see how strong, successful company cultures have visionary leaders who have learned how to encourage positive qualities and get a high level of performance from their employees. By granting them autonomy. By setting up policies and practices that involve their input and show respect. By communicating well. By being fair, reliable, clear, and accountable. These are great organizations that have good reputations, loyal talent, and solid performance. Above all, they have leaders who understand that their own values matter–a lot.
With Gebler’s three-value model, leaders now have a working template to evaluate areas of weakness in their leadership style and company culture, and a roadmap for removing policies and practices that keep good employees from performing at their best.