In business, we exhort ourselves to achieve dreams. “Client interests come first!” and “We are committed to full and fair disclosure!”
These are dreams because business doesn’t work this way. When the decision rubber hits the road, there’s conflict. When executing strategy and tactics, we never fully live up to our lofty ambitions. Real-life business decisions are subject to constraints, competing goals and priorities, resource and technological limitations, and trade offs.
• Dream: “We must be fully transparent with our customers at all times . . .”
• Reality: “But we can’t disclose everything.”
• Dream: “Our sales reps must always engage as trusted advisors to our clients . . .”
• Reality: “But they’re accountable for meeting quota.”
• Dream: “We believe customer confidentiality and privacy are paramount . . .”
• Reality: “But protecting our customer databases from cyberattacks is not our highest investment priority.”
• Dream: “Delivering excellent customer experiences is our highest priority . . .”
• Reality: “But not if it sacrifices our profitability.”
• Dream: “Our contracts are designed to protect the interests of our customers and suppliers . . .”
• Reality: “But not as fully as our own.”
• Dream: “Our policy is to never lie to a prospect in a sales pursuit . . .”
• Reality: “But our most pressing mission is to persuade them to buy.”
Dream versus reality. In each of these examples, employee values – not policies and rules – ultimately hold sway over what gets done. Boeing withheld information from customers about the performance of its 737 Max aircraft, while publicly promoting its Purpose and Mission as “Connect, Protect, Explore and Inspire the World through Aerospace Innovation.” Protect? I’m not buying it. Though Boeing has argued vociferously that it wasn’t obligated to disclose the risks allegedly involved in two recent fatal crashes, many disagree. If you’re looking for the rootiest root-cause for these aviation calamaties, it starts squarely with the values its executives and staff brought to the job, and acted upon.
Yet, the whiplash clamor we often hear favoring indiscriminate transparency is misguided.
According to a US News article, Could California’s Coffee Warning Backfire?, “People can become desensitized after repeated exposures, false alarms, incorrect warnings, when warnings are disproportionately extreme or don’t show immediate harm.” The article cited a 1994 research report by David Stewart and Ingrid Martin offering examples of reversals on cholesterol warnings in eggs, consumption of specific preservatives and artificial sweeteners. Perfect transparency? It’s a dream. A laudable one, but still a dream. Business reality suggests that simply blasting everything online to buttress a gratuitous full-transparency marketing claim can be useless or even counterproductive.
Whether it’s Boeing, a food producer, a tech company, or other enterprise, personal values of employees are always embedded in decisions that profoundly affect us.
When it comes to values, humans don’t enter the workplace a tabula rasa. They don’t unfailingly hew to the written visions, policies, rules, and codes of conduct that companies issue. They don’t osmotically internalize them. They can’t. No matter how thoroughly conceived and documented, corporate rules and guidelines cover only a small sliver of possible employee conduct. In the wide-open spaces of decision-making, employees call audibles through their unique lens of background, experience, and personal values. It’s impossible for a salesperson to “never lie,” when his or her foremost job is to persuade, and persuasion needs distortion. And what defines distortion if not a warping of the truth?
“Never lie,” and “keep the customer at the center of everything we do” are examples of dreamy, aspirational platitudes trotted out on PowerPoint and shared in motivational meetings. Good stuff. I have no quarrels. But as a practical matter, simply saying them or maintaining them on a Vision and Values splash page is unworkable. As John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In the all-important gap between dream and reality, the personal values that every employee holds dictates what gets decided, and what gets done.