Talent Management, Values & Ethical Behaviour

In today’s (25, January, 2011, page FP12) National Post and article titled “Good values good for the bottom line”  (by Mary Teresa Bitti) caught my interest. The following points were raised:

  • People in organizations seem to fit a bell curve when it comes to the “say” and “do” dichotomy. Some will be opportunistic towards any benefit regardless of coherence to avowed values. Some will acct according to their values regardless of personal self interest. AND, most will take a “pragmatic” approach (want to do the right thing if there is no systematic disadvantage).
  • How do people within an organization become heard when an organization does not encourage discussion and transparency around significant risks?
  • What is the connection between personal and corporate values. The insight is that there is a shortlist of core values that are widely shared (honesty, responsibility, integrity, and compassion) among cultures, time and people.
  • How does strong corporate culture based on solid values drive performance? Suggestion is three is not a strong correlation. We are advised that we should ask: “How do we make values pay?”. AND, we should also teach leaders to do well in for the long term and make values pay.

Like many people, I have been fascinated (not in a good way) by the apparent questionable ethical behaviours of those who have helped bring about the recent worldwide financial crisis. One of the insights I have been attentive to is:

“Everyone involved (business leaders, governments, participants, regulatory agents, etc.) directly contributed to the outcome AND they with remarkable consistency have spent considerable energy blaming someone else.”

I don’t think I can recall a single leader (who wasn’t facing public censure/criminal/civil charges) who out and out voluntarily said: “This (description) is how I contributed this mess!”

If I am even partially correct, the implication is that at high leadership levels, “responsibility” and its action expression – accountability does not seem to be on their shortlist of core values.

This gap between avowed values and observable discrepant behaviour is not new. While people have choices they do exhibit a bell curve” like behaviours.

The relationship to TM? Everything for some roles.

For roles that have a “high leverage” impact on the performance of others (like leadership roles) the involvement of values and relevant consistent behaviour is unavoidable. Ignore this and you will reap what you deserve (being fleeced).

I have some some basic vocabulary around this issue that will assist this post’s readers to follow the subsequent discussion.

Values: that which we hold “dear” in that they definitely come into play when we are deeply troubled or conflicted. This means they are the tenets that we “use” to help us in difficult moments. Another litmus test for me is a value is a value when it is drawn upon when there is no one watching us. This last “test” means that Robinson Crusoe can have values too.

Value Aspirations: that which we express support of and for. They serve us on a day-to-day basis where choices are not deeply complex or difficult. They are often tenets that we openly acknowledge that we are not consistent in following (especially in difficult circumstances).

Ethical behaviour: when we act in accordance to our, and our social group(s) value systems

For me, there are a couple important and useful questions that warrant asking when we consider this complex topic:

  1. What values are necessary in any high lever role? One less and there are not enough, one more and we are in the nice to have category
  2. How do they have an operant use in the role? (Where and how do they play out?)
  3. What is most important to us: the values or the related behaviour?

I would propose that the answer to question 3 above is behaviours. Values are used to guide subsequent behaviours. If we observe the behaviours we deem appropriate, why would we care about the values behind them? In fact it is only through behaviour that we can discern what values someone (including ourselves) has.

Question 1 raises the issue that so called value pragmatists have (behaving in accord with values that do not lead to some systemic disadvantage). There is an irony here, a pragmatist says: I will act in accord to my values unless I sense some form of loss for doing so over repeated experiences. So for this group, they will abide by their values only if they continue to “win” frequently enough. By my terminology above I would describe these situations as being Values Aspiration ones.

Question 2 begins to deal with the dilemma of holding values that leave you at some form of recurring (unacceptable) loss. It deals with being clear when and where a value is applicable. For example: I personally would never have a moment’s hesitation to be dishonest if being honest lead to the likelihood of some serious harm.

This is why we usually have multiple values, they give us guidance in differing circumstances. The judgement of how well we did by these in terms of decisions and actions is in the outcomes that follow. Accepting the notion of responsibility (and subsequent accountability) means we will be prepared to be judged by how well and skillfully we chose.

For me, responsibility/accountability are the highest value. This value drives and tempers how we consider and act with other values. It is a form of the hippocratic oath that doctors ascribe to. It deals with the notion that consequences (outcomes) are important. Being able to look into your own choices and actions and own the consequences means:

  • you have personal integrity – accept what you did lead to what happened
  • you have basic honesty – acknowledge that what happened was a result of what you did
  • you have compassion – accept that what you did (when it does harm) was wrong to others

Of the three types of value actors noted in the article, it is the pragmatists that are the most troubling to organizations. Pragmatists decide when enough is enough and then choose act counter to their avowed values. But your enough” may not be the same as my or anyone else’s “enough”.

But if the observation is that most of us are pragmatists, then what do we do with this fact?

I previous posts, I have talked about role performance ranges (insufficient – too much). I see building on this concept to help the pragmatist to be consistent enough over time to a positive force. This means doing the work of identifying in the role where the rubber not only hits the road ,but, hits the ditch too. This means using a behaviourally oriented description of what’s what, how’s how, and when’s when.

Can we identify all potential value crisis points (especially when we live in an universe of uncertainty)? No! This is why “smart” people and organizations enable a “time-out” or review process for assessing the dilemmas of specific choice situations. This is why “smart” people and organizations make it a visible process on how they regularly and systematical incorporate value implications in their business decisions. This is why, “smart” people and organizations talk about how they dealt with ethical dilemmas and what they have learned form these experiences (i.e., how they would choose and act next time.

All the process examples above are how leaders show their mettle and demonstrate their values when it was tempting to veer away from compliance.

This leads to one final observation: values can be learned if one assumes that its the behaviours that matter. However, I would still encourage to advise clients to recruit people who hold your organization’s values and worry about the “technical” aspects of the role as secondary attributes. Exception: when the role is one that requires a fundamental technical competence then this as fundamental recruiting requirement too.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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