“Values based management”

Herewith today’s column in the Age and SMH.

George Orwell was a stickler for plain and simple English in public discourse. He argued that one could escape some of “the worst follies of orthodoxy” by simplifying one’s language.

“When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Last week the OECD felt it was time for a bit of pure wind. It headed a media release “Structural reforms more important than ever for a strong and balanced economic recovery”. Really? Let’s invert the rhetorical body language and leave the literal meaning in tact. The OECD thinks that structural reforms have always been less important than they are today. Less important in addressing the economic ailments of the 1970s? Less important in the industrial revolution? Enough said.

This kind of verbal flatulence is everywhere. And it matters.

One of the South Australian Public Sector’s “core values” is “honesty in all that we do and say” Really? Like any modern public service, South Australia’s is necessarily part of the relentless spin that is eating our world. Government agencies are integral to ‘performing’ of government, helping politicians with tendentious sound bites proclaiming the wisdom of the government and, very often by implication, the folly of their opposition.

In doing so departments will gild the lily and routinely deploy managerialist euphemism. Arrangements will be ‘improved’ and ‘enhanced’. ‘Best practices’ will be adopted which, we will be told, will make us more competitive, whatever more sober reflection might suggest. This will frequently extend to the routine petty deceptions involved in ‘repackaging’ previously announced policy and the spinning of details which might otherwise invite scepticism. Not for them the candour of Billionaire Chairman of the American conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett who regularly confesses to his shareholders, the “colossal mistakes made by your Chairman”.

And the deceptions may not be petty. Where an officer is in possession of information of considerable import – as were senior defence officers during the ‘children overboard’ episode – they will often become complicit with the suppression of that information.

None of this is to gainsay the importance of honesty as a value both personally and for the public service. And indeed sanctions for inappropriate dishonesty are strewn throughout professional life. But that’s my point. The real story is that dishonesty is so bad it’s a criminal offence in some situations, and that it’s not just advisable, but required practice elsewhere. And typically the most senior officers – who are called upon to ‘embed’ the stated values – are those who’ve best learned that the clarion call for “honesty in all we do and say” is altogether more freighted with organisational imperatives than more naïve souls might imagine.

Lists of values mean next to nothing as bland, contextless assertions. Just as economists are trained to understand how much people value something, not by what they say but rather by what they do – that is how much of one thing they’re prepared to sacrifice to get something else – so people’s values emerge from difficult choices between alternatives. Should respect count for more than honesty? Should tolerance and diversity be more important than reliability?

Alas, even here we haven’t made much progress, because values don’t go into battle against each other as Platonic forms. They are demonstrated in a context. If I criticise a colleague’s performance, that might reflect disrespect or the very opposite depending on a whole list of variables, many of which may only be dimly evident to outsiders, and remain hotly contested between different parties. Yet where there’s disagreement, and some resolution must be found, it must often be imposed by those in authority, who will duly reference the official organisational values in their decision.

I suspect there’s real merit in embedding such decision-making, in so far as humanly possible, in a deliberately cultivated awareness of its ethical dimensions. The Australian Public Service Commission’s “Decision making model” offers a sensible guide of this kind. And the proposed values it proselytises to its charges seem more carefully hedged, less bumptious than the South Australian example referenced above.

Still, count me among the sceptics when it comes to any disembodied apex list of values from which appropriate behaviour is supposed to be deduced. For in our social and professional life we are forever trading off relative values, which live ultimately in the complex circumstances of individual actions, not in bland protestations, however bold. There’s something creepy about calls from on high for “honesty in all that we do and say” while the routine deceptions of everyday life, both petty and otherwise, proceed apace.

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13 Responses to “Values based management”

  1. Douglas Hynd says:

    In substantial agreement. “Values” language tends to function as a way of avoiding specification of what exactly our moral commitments as embodied in action and behaviour are.

  2. TN says:

    great post, Nick – thanks.

  3. nottrampis says:


    I agree and hope you realise his best essay was on how to pour tea!!

    He made a boring topic interesting

    • Nicholas Gruen says:


      My third draft of the column began as follows “George Orwell was a stickler for plain and simple English in public discourse and for the small civilities of British private life like making a cup of tea.”

      I wanted to develop the column towards the proposition that one of the odious aspects of all the bumph about values is that values are a predominantly private affair. There is something overweening and totalising about expecting that a group of people sign up to a set of values in their workplace. (I know you could argue the toss on this – and it’s a subtle point, because one does want employees to sign up to a broad culture or ‘way we do things here’ in a workplace).

      In any event I wanted to suggest that the craze for values based this and that was a subtle shifting of where the boundaries lie between private and public in a way that was invidious for private space.

      But I though it was too divergent a thought for a column of less than 800 words and that I’d be bound to be misunderstood as a curmudgeon – or perhaps understood as a curmudgeon ;)

  4. JJ says:

    The Cranlana programme puts this into effect and departments send staff to week-long guided discussions of philosophy and ethics, grounded in practice. This is the way to achieve real integrity in public service practice.

    I can personally attest to its real worth (I won’t say ‘excellence’ or ‘value’ here)

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    JJ I’ve been to a Cranlana colloquium and loved it. I just clicked on your link to discover a picture of me in full pontification gesticulating like Aristotle in the School of Athens with one hand and a cup of tea in the other. Leaving nothing to chance we took four hours in the studio to get it right.

  6. desipis says:

    I share some of the cynicism about ‘values based management’. However I’ve always felt it was less about adding something positive and more about undermining negative attitudes. There’s often the assumption (by employees & managers) that the only thing important in managing a company is the short term bottom line, probably a cultural perspective arising from management developing in the factories of the industrial age. By actively promoting ‘values’ (whatever those values happen to be), it discourages people from being inclined to screw over customers, colleagues or the community to make a short term buck but screwing over the long term prospects of the company in the process.

    The values promoted might not give any answers, but even having employees snidely rejecting them can help the right questions to be asked. It’s not so much about management providing top-down answers, but about creating a culture where people feel permitted to challenge the status quo. If you frame your views within wishy-washy company ‘values’ then it’s harder to criticism them as being combative rather than constructive. This intent is to have a company of active and independent employees, rather than one of mindless drones.

    Of course, like any other management buzzwords, you could probably divide people into three different groups based on how they respond to the values. There will be those who dismiss them our of hand, those who treat them as some form of religious doctrine and those who will manipulate them to justify what they were going to do anyway.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks desipis, I think it’s a very good point you make that the idea values based management seems like a good one in the sense that it reminds those in an organisation that it has a culture and perhaps more importantly that it achieves its practical goals through that culture rather than despite it.

    That’s not really something I thought about, but should have when writing the column. One thing I did think about, though it’s not reflected in the column is that, at least so far as my researches went, “values based management” arises from “values based leadership” and the latter was a movement in which leaders – generally private sector leaders led to a substantial extent by example, and the example was a humble one which demonstrated care for employees and ethical behaviour.

    The guys who did this were in the tradition of entrepreneurs – whether or not they owned the company they ran – and the schtick in the management books was what a great thing this was and how it was a great way to end up with a great company. Translating this as “values based management” is ironic because with values based management whomever happens to be chosen to be the boss – by the board (or in the public sector the government or the Public Service Board) then gets the job of “embedding” the corporate values. You can see how this is a neat reversal on the origins of the idea of values based leadership, because it all gets down to the leader, and it’s not something that could possibly be grafted onto an organisation if it had the wrong leader. No doubt there’s some discussion of these issues somewhere in the literature, but I’ve not been able to find anything insightful on it.

    Something else jumped out at me from what you’ve written. You write “It’s not so much about management providing top-down answers, but about creating a culture where people feel permitted to challenge the status quo.” That’s fine, but how come values statements so often say nothing about permission to challenge the status quo – or those in authority – as part of the values of the organisation? I’ve literally never seen such values in values statements, though no doubt they exist and some organisations do encourage genuine debate, though they’re rare. But if you think that groupthink is the main enemy to reason within organisations (as I do) then you’d expect to see that idea reflected in the organisation’s values.

  8. murph the surf. says:

    I heard about this company on the BBC a few years ago and thought it may be of interest as a model of empowering employees to challenge their work in most facets.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note to self for further development. Another aspect of bureaucratese is the fusion of is and ought statements. “The board also leads and models behaviours and values that will ensure the organisation’s success.” A relatively innocuous, but nevertheless illustrative example from the Finance Annual Report 2011-12.

    From memory the Moran Report “Ahead of the Game” provides lots more audacious examples.

  10. JJ says:

    Based upon my limited experience, there is an inverse relationship between talking about and practising ‘values’. The worse things get, the higher sounding the values become. Once you see those motivational posters on the wall of an office, you know things are bad. It is indeed the gap between the is and ought that counts.

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