Every year the PR giant Edelman publishes a global survey on one issue – trust. It considers the levels of trust we have in our public institutions, technical experts, each other – and our business leaders. Whilst the latest results have seen an increase of trust in CEO’s from a low of 37% a few years ago, nearly half of us still believe that they are untrustworthy. This has serious implications for the ways in which we have traditionally led our people; command and control, the leader as superhero, communications broadcast and cascaded from the top, etc. If people are less inclined to trust in business leaders, then these approaches are fundamentally flawed.

Trust matters more than ever

Does it matter that trust in leadership remains so low? I believe the need for people to trust their leaders has never been more important for three key reasons.

Firstly, trust equals money. When 84% of global companies’ market value is comprised of so-called “intangible assets” – goodwill, intellectual capital and brand equity – the ability of employees to impact that value is significant. Gone are the days when a disgruntled employee would simply moan about their leader in the pub with a few mates. Now they can inform millions. Just look at how AOL’s Tim Armstrong’s sacking of an employee in a big meeting went viral in a matter of hours. Look at the rise of Glassdoor, the Tripadvisor for places to work. Employee power is growing and lack of trust in leaders can cost companies dear.

Secondly, in this disrupted world, leaders are asking their employees to follow them into the most unchartered of territories. They ask their people to work in new ways, with new technologies, in new environments and with new people. How can leaders expect employees to follow them into this uncertain and scary world when they don’t believe they’re trustworthy?

Finally, in the knowledge economy leaders need their people to consciously give them their ideas, their creativity, their connections and their opinions. In a world where technology has provided so many more choices about where and how we work, leaders need to be seen as worthy of that choice.

Leaders destroy trust every day

Having been a member of the BBC leadership team that oversaw the Savile crisis and its severance scandal, I am clearly not speaking from a position of moral authority here – but hopefully with a degree of understanding and humility! There are some things we do as leaders that destroy trust every day. I’m not talking about the big unethical stuff, but rather some really basic things that we do every day, often unwittingly, that erode the relationships with our people. For me there are four key things we do as leaders that destroy trust and I should point out that I have probably been guilty of doing all of these at some point in my career!

  1. Our communications lack humanity

Something weird happens to people when they communicate as leaders. We forget all of the communication techniques that we use with our friends and families and develop a “corporate personae” that is almost devoid of any humanity. One day at the BBC, I got a call from a guy in News who wanted to be helpful by explaining to me that “my emails were crap” and I should “get someone else to write them for me”. I was slightly taken aback as this was precisely what I had done. My emails were usually written with several other people – people in HR, people in Legal, people in the press team and people in Internal Communications. But to humour him I went back over some of my recent missives and realised with dismay that he was right. My emails were crap. They seemed pompous and sterile, lacking any humanity or humility. I had adopted the royal Executive “We” and, in an effort to be accurate, I had “lawyered-out” any personality.

Leadership comms often ignores the power of storytelling that could create a bond with our listeners and we rely too heavily on one of the single biggest destroyers of humane communications – PowerPoint. We push deck after deck of dry analysis at them believing, wrongly, that the power of logical argument will build buy-in to our ideas. During the period when we were trying to communicate the need to reform the BBC’s pension scheme, the trade unions’ leaflets were so much more powerful than the corporate line. They posted images of fat, overpaid BBC executives who cared little for the staff and produced caricatures of the Director General and his team that had an almost pantomime villain quality. The leaders talked about mortality rates and interest rate risks. A futile attempt to combat emotion with analysis.

  1. We lack courage when things get tough

Of course, it is hard to walk into a room of angry staff. No leader relishes facing their team after announcing job losses or pay cuts. But it amases me how many of us take the money that goes with the senior role and yet become invisible when it gets tough. In every period of difficult news “Hunt the missing Exec” is a favourite pastime and yet this disappearing act damages our employees’ faith in us to do the right thing.

  1. We demand petty privileges

The increasing emphasis on transparency has led many public sector bodies to publish expense claims of its senior leaders. Whilst the press focus on the more luxurious claims – a bottle of champagne or a posh dinner – what annoys employees the most is the smaller claims – the postage stamp or the cappuccino – by people who are on six-figure salaries. We’ve all seen these small abuses of privilege and some of us have been guilty of doing it; the demand for a good parking space, the slightly better tech than everyone else, no hot desking for the Execs. It does us no favours and we come across as mean-spirited. You wouldn’t trust a friend who demanded petty privileges so why would you trust your leader?

  1. We don’t trust them

As leaders we expect to be trusted by employees but it’s very much a one-way street because we certainly don’t appear to trust them. So many of our rules and policies have been developed because someone did something bad once and a rule was developed to prevent anyone doing it ever again. We all have the “Stop Them” Policies and indeed hours of our time go into enforcing them. Think about your own employment contract. It will probably tell you how much you are going to be paid, the hours you are expected to work and the 30 policies that if breached, will result in you being fired. Hardly the opening gambit for a trusting relationship!

The three things leaders can do to build trust

So how can leaders build a more trusting relationship with their people? Clearly, there are some bigger questions around business ethics, regulation and transparency, building purpose or pay differentials between leaders and their people. But what are things that leaders can do every day to build better relationships? I believe there are three changes they can make.

  1. Obsess about knowing them

You can only have a relationship with people you actually know. It’s not enough to try and engage with large groups of employees as if they are a homogenous lump. You wouldn’t engage with your customers in such an unsophisticated way; we invest significant amounts of time and money trying to know their likes, dislikes, ways of thinking and behaving. Yet we rarely apply this to our own people. 80% of us still only survey our people once a year and then produce actions plans that aim to show “we’ve listened”. We need to learn from our colleagues in marketing about customer data and insight and creating leadership communications and approaches that are based on their varying needs and wants. But there is also room for more traditional forms of relationship building too. The Coop recently looked at what their people really wanted from their leaders. What came back surprised them in its simplicity. They wanted to be listened to, to feel that their leader was interested in them and to have honest conversations with them.

  1. Treat them as adults

If we are going to build trusting relationships in the new world, we have to create working environments that have at their very core, a belief that our employees are decent, adult, human beings who can be trusted to behave well. If we changed our contract of employment to one that is not written with an eye on future tribunals but is about a mutually trusting adult relationship, how different would it be? If we tackled the individual who had behaved badly without creating new rules to prevent anyone else behaving that way, how empowering would that be? If leaders stopped believing that they have to the answers to preserve their status and instead said ‘what do you think?’ or ‘I trust you – use your judgement’, how much more empowering is that?

  1. Humility is making a come-back

Showing humility is rarely one of the qualities we look for in our leadership selection criteria. But I believe it is making a come-back. Our collective futures depends upon our leaders’ abilities to build partnerships, to collaborate more effectively with customers and competitors, to spot new business opportunities and threats early and to be agile in response, to manage diverse and virtual teams and to create environments where individuals can flourish and cope with uncertainty. We’ve all worked for or with the narcissist or the psychopath – these are not the people who are capable of leading in this new world. We desperately need some lower ego leaders in the future who get their kicks from enabling and creating environments where their team can do their best work, rather than through their own personal glory. And what about the leaders we’ve already got? Well, we have to help them be the very best human beings they can be. We need to encourage them to let their guard down, to understand the positive impact of humility, to use emotional stories rather than just sharing data, to be visible when it goes wrong and take the flak – to see niceness as an asset, not a weakness. Only then can we start to build the trust we so desperately need.

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I once spent six months working on a new set of values for my company. It was great fun. We held workshops with tons of employees involving huge quantities of yellow stickies. We collated the outputs and presented them to the Exec team who then got really excited about the exercise and which turn of phrase would be ‘just right’. When we’d come up with our magic four (I can’t actually remember what they were now but something involving ‘innovation’ and ‘customer focus’, I think) – we then worked through the required behaviours. The values were then launched in grand style to all of our people at conferences and workshops. We even had a film made which was really good and made a few of us cry. We then developed cascade packs for managers – to help ‘bring them to life’ for the people who weren’t invited to the conferences (probably because they were focusing on the actual customer at the time!)

Yes, a great few months and the company really didn’t skimp on the investment to make them perfect. But …. Was it a good use of our time and money? Now I am not so sure.

I have since witnessed or been involved in countless other similar exercises. Some with slightly less investment. Most with a lot less enjoyment. And none of them seeming to make a huge amount of difference.

I’d like to suggest that corporate values have had their day and we need something fresh.

The Rise and Fall of Corporate Values

It’s difficult to assess exactly when corporate values statements became fashionable, but I reckon that they surged in the 1990’s and by the new century you were seen as odd if you didn’t have yours splashed over your walls, mugs and lanyards. Of course, over the last few years we have seen them being discredited on numerous occasions. You just have to check out Enron’s, VW’s or BHS’s at the time of their respective scandals to know that a decent set of values was never a guarantee of corporate ethics. But I think the real problems are threefold;

Values Confusion

I don’t think we’ve ever really got a handle on what values statements were about.

Firstly, should they reflect the reality of working in our company today, or should they be aspirational? We are lectured about the need for values-authenticity, but they might not be as inspiring if our chosen values were ‘pretty average, tend to be old-fashioned and a bit boring’. It amazes me how many companies seem to pick a value out of the ether that they like the look of or think they ought to have a bit more of – and simply say, ‘this is now us’! I remember working with a major UK retail outfit and they had just launched a range of new values, in much the same way as they would launch a new clothing line. ‘This is what everyone will be wearing this Summer!’ or in their case ‘We are now innovative!’ I remember hearing some of the older retail assistants who had worked there for over 25 years grumbling about it and wondering why their loyalty, dedication and decency didn’t seem to be as popular anymore.

Secondly, should they describe a principle/belief or a behaviour? Shouldn’t our company values describe the former, a set of beliefs or principles that shape our behaviour? Conversely most values statements seem to be descriptions of the kinds of behaviour we want to see (teamwork, accountability, creativity, excellence, passion, etc) which would suggest we might have missed the point a bit?

Patrick Lencioni helpfully described four types of values:

Core values – the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions

Aspirational values – those that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks

Permission-to-play values – that simply reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee

Accidental values – that arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time

In Lencioni’s view, companies need to focus on the first, ‘core’ values, and ensure that these are both ‘aggressively authentic’ and applied to every action, if the values are to serve as a competitive advantage. Whilst I think this differentiation is useful, I am not convinced that any company can truthfully say that they adhere to these behaviours at all times? More importantly, business, like life, is filled with complexities and different contexts. Can we honestly say that we can describe how our company will and should act in every given situation? Doesn’t the volatility of our business worlds need us to reassess what ‘appropriate’ looks like on a fairly regular basis? For example;

The value Simplicity.  Is simplicity always a good thing? Aren’t some things necessarily complex? Simplicity for whom? If it’s for our customers, then might that require our backend systems to become much more complex?

Or what about Passion? Can we really be passionate about everything? Wouldn’t that get a bit exhausting? Or even annoying?!

Or ‘Results-driven’. Isn’t this the value statement that got so many of us into trouble in the last global financial crisis? Which results? Short-term? Long-term? Sales or long-term customer loyalty? Sometimes, we have conflict between the different results we’re driving for.

I totally get that companies might want to sum up their behavioural intent with a few choice words or phrases, but does it really make sense?

Imposing Values

One of perpetual dilemmas for HR and leaders alike is how to bring the ‘values to life’. Here we take our four or five words or phrases and try and get our employees to:

I’ve always felt there was something inherently arrogant in a company ‘providing’ values to their employees. Almost as if the leaders feel they have the monopoly on principled behaviour but their employees need to be fed them and have them explained. Of course, sometimes companies involve loads of their people in helping to produce them. Brownie points for engagement, but in my experience these exercises are difficult to get right. Attempting to corral 10,000 individual belief systems and different experiences at work nearly always ends up with something too generic to create too much excitement.

We write out our behavioural statements so that no-one, especially Shirley in Procurement, is left in any doubt about ‘innovation’ means. We host workshops across our various teams and involve them in exercises that can feel a tad patronising. But we’re left worried that maybe Shirley in Procurement isn’t going to be any more innovative than she was beforehand.

Often, we end up settling for getting employees just to remember them. It’s easier to give out a mug than change someone’s behavioural patterns isn’t it?!

Vanilla Values

Values statements have become so predictable that they are almost a parody of themselves! You only have to have a look at the FTSE 100 in which ‘Integrity’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Customer-centricity’ appear multiple times or the Fortune 500 where the values are ‘Integrity’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Excellence’ are shared by many of them. There’s nothing wrong with these values, but aren’t they just hygiene factors? Wouldn’t you expect every company to have integrity, to treat you with respect and to strive for excellence?  Instead of differentiating us, our vanilla values reinforce just how similar we are to every other corporate.

By the way, if you haven’t seen this brilliant video on the clichés involved in brand values – check it out!

So, what’s the alternative to Values Statements?

If you’re still reading, you would be forgiven for thinking that I must be a complete cynic and existing in some moralistic vacuum! Well, I’d like to think not, and I do believe that having a strong ethical core in business is actually a good thing. I just think there are different ways to achieve it and also to differentiate your own culture – without the ubiquitous values statement.

What we need instead, in my opinion are two things; a focus on being a decent human being and secondly, a drive to create a differentiated employee experience.

Behave like a decent human being

What if we just got rid of our cliched, banal and pompous values statements and instead had a mantra that ‘we always try and behave like decent human beings’. Wouldn’t this be a ‘values catch-all’ (respect, integrity, inclusivity, trust, compassion, teamwork, etc)? Wouldn’t everyone immediately know what it meant without the need of behavioural indicators?

A Differentiated Employee Experience

To create a differentiated culture within your organisation, I suggest that you focus on the experiences that you want your people to have. The benefit of focusing on experiences is that you have to think about how people will feel, rather than how they will behave. If you create the right conditions, the right types of experiences, then you can influence how your people might feel. And you can ensure that these experiences are relevant to your company, are aligned with your brand and are in support of the business ambitions you are laying out.

So, you might want a high-energy experience? Or an experience where people feel free to do their best work? Or an experience that is warm and welcoming? You can shape this through getting creative with your policies and processes, through the physical environment that you provide, through the tools and equipment they get to use, through the speed and ways you take decisions, through the way that you lead. If you’re interested in looking at how to create employee experiences in more detail maybe join us at a live webinar or check out our other blogs here

So, like many other employment concepts that sprung up in the 80’s and 90’s, corporate value statements seem increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant. Maybe it’s time we took the posters off the wall and went for something different?

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