Values that We Can Change in Companies and Society

Ethics: Personal and Corporate ValuesA few days ago I was invited to speak at the Club of Rome’s series on “The Crisis of Values and Social Regeneration” organized by its Catalan Chapter. I asked, “What can we do with our society’s values?” What I would like to discuss in this regard is important: Values can be changed. The second part of my presentation dealt with this, while the first focused on precisely some “values” that I believe are not the most appropriate given what our society needs today.

In the personal sphere, we can understand values in two ways: as ideals (what I would like to be) and as practices (what I do effectively). With regard to values as ideals, I pointed out that they require two things: information and training.

Information: What values do I deem desirable? This sounds very theoretical. However, it need not be if we understand how we receive this information. For example, when I observe my father working hard, my mother making sacrifices for her children and my teacher worrying about keeping details in order, I am learning that there are values that are worth living.

Training: Why should I live those values? This is the rational dimension that one learns through thinking, study, consultation, etc. Being industrious is good for many reasons, and it is certainly much better than its opposite which is not so for many other reasons, yet it obviously has its limitations as well for several reasons. I should be able to understand this and similarly, about other values.  Probably the best way to acquire this type of knowledge, however, is not to attend a conference series, but rather to simply ask my father, who would explain to me the reasons why industriousness is a value.

The other way to understand values – as practices – deals with the ability to live according to these values, i.e., to practice them. It is fine to say that one should be industrious, but if I have never in my life been so, it won’t go beyond being an attractive yet unattainable desire.

Training yourself to live according to your values

Certainly, the conference attendees were interested in how one goes about training.  Following are some of the ideas I discussed (of course there are many more):

  • Learn to correctly evaluate reality, because what you want does not necessarily coincide with what is good for you. A clear example is food and drink, but also in the way we live in society.
  • Know what drives you. Ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” Don’t beat around the bush; don’t justify your decisions saying that you do it for the sake of others. Go on and tell it like it is.  Otherwise, it’s like cheating at solitaire.
  •  Keep in mind the consequences of your actions on you – all of them. A lie might get you out of an awkward situation (a positive consequence), but it makes you a liar and you step onto a slippery slope of lying with greater ease in the future (a negative consequence)
  • Keep in mind the consequences on others. Lying to a client allows you to land a sale, but would you like to be the client who has been lied to?
  • Make an effort to understand others’ needs and to take them into consideration.  “I know what they need.”  Well, are you sure?
  •  Step out of the either-or polarity of “good” or “bad” and think instead about “the best.
  • Eliminate your actions that prompt others to act selfishly and you will have improved your moral environment.
  • Help others to understand what motivates their actions, as you did with your own, certainly so that they can improve, but also, so that you can be better too.
  • Help others to understand the effect of their actions on themselves and others, for the same reasons that you thought about it for yourself.
  • Trust others. Give them your trust and let them know.  If they ask you what they should do, answer that it’s up to them to think about what they should do.
  • Let them make mistakes. Let them know that they have done so, but let them take responsibility. Otherwise, they won’t improve as people and you will never improve as a leader.
  • Be an example. Values are not abstract; we learn them from the behavior we observe in others.  Now it’s your turn to be the example.
  • Don’t trust your ethical instinct. Study, question, ask for advice, etc.
  •  Train yourself to do good. How? By always doing what you are supposed to, but doing it well.
  •  Strive to act based on higher motives, not only on rewards and punishments.
  •  Conquer the temptation to do what you want.
  • If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness, and start over. You won’t lose others’ appreciation.
  • Complicate your life. Living your values is not a guarantee of having it easy.

 Developing values in companies

Yet, how does one develop values in companies and organizations? 

Here’s a preliminary idea:  A company with values (ethical values) is probably a good, well-managed company because it has the ability to create an internal and external environment that lends itself to trust, participation, to considering the consequences of decisions on stakeholders, to thinking in the long-term, etc.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Another preliminary idea: A company’s values do not necessarily need to be those of its directors and employees because a company is ultimately more than the sum of its parts. It has its own culture, structure, regulations on how it functions, and a day-to-day that makes relationships between people more complicated than those between friends, or a mother and her children.  Employees may be very tolerant, yet the norms by which a company works may turn it into a model of intolerance.  In other words, while I might be willing to tolerate people who think differently, the company may not allow for dissenting voices.  That is why it is important for values to permeate the entire structure, norms and culture and that they be present in an organization’s strategy, policies and day-to-day decision-making.

Incentives are particularly important. (Like Kenneth Andrews of Harvard said many years ago, “In the end people do things that they get paid to do,” not what is published in the mission on the website.)  Criteria and processes to evaluate behavior are also important. (Do they pay me to sell more without asking how I did it or do they also want me to do so in a “clean” way, collaborating with clients and colleagues?)

How companies react to conflicts and failure is also extremely important.  Do they sweep it under the rug or do they try to find out what really happened?  Communication and institutionalization are also important.   Not everything has to do with the good will of a director who tomorrow could be replaced by someone else.  A commitment from all, starting with top executives, and participation by all, is crucial.  After all, where values are concerned, and especially, carrying them out, everyone has something  – a lot – to say.Align values and practice:  Review structures, processes and policies to see if any are misaligned

with the values that the organization upholds.  Allow people the appropriate free rein to get involved without fear of reprimand every time they do.

Transparency:  Put in place effective controls to detect flaws.  And, in conclusion, pay special attention to human resource policies.  These are what in the end will shape the values of the organization, even if they are not the only factor in this realm.  Anyway, just a few ideas to ponder.

principles-and-valuesIf we don’t like the values by which we are living or those that our society or one of our specific societies (family, sports club, company, political party, etc.) is living, we will have to change them.

Unless we practice the relativism associated with Groucho Marx when he said, “These are my principles.  If you don’t like them, don’t worry, I have others.”


About Antonio Argandoña

Antonio Argandoña is Emeritus Professor of Economics and holder of the "la Caixa" Chair of Corporate Social Responsibility and Corporate Governance at IESE. He teaches mainly in the areas of macroeconomics, monetary economics and international economics, and publishes research on business ethics, corporate social responsibility and organizational governance.

3 thoughts on “Values that We Can Change in Companies and Society

  1. Hi, I do believe this is a great site. I stumbledupon it 😉 I’m going to
    revisit yet again since i have bookmarked it. Money and freedom is the best way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide other people.

Comments are closed.