Core Values, Devalued

By E. Kersten

Jun. 2, 2005

Why aren’t employees happy? It’s a question organizations constantly face and try to address, in part, through motivational programs and books. In the view of E.L. Kersten, such efforts are wasted and only compound the problem of employee dissatisfaction. In his radical new book, The Art of Demotivation, Kersten offers his vision of a new workplace, powered not by self-confident and empowered employees but by workers who have been “radically demotivated.” In this excerpt, Kersten explains that a first step is the creation of a collusive relationship with employees, “one that systematically suppresses acknowledgment of the dynamics that violate the relationship in order to maintain the relationship.” The beginning of that collusive relationship is a very special set of core values.

A visionary organization’s core values must be authentically believed and lived–particularly by the organization’s leadership–if they are to provide their intended inspiration and guidance to the employees. Since Radical Demotivation™ replaces inspiration and guidance with collusion as the intended purpose for articulating the company’s core values, authenticity is unnecessary, and in some cases, it may be an obstacle. It is far more important that the stated values be acceptable to the employees than that they be believed by the executives. This will not only lead the employees to accept them as being authentic, it will make it easy for executives to violate them. Along that line, I have developed a few guidelines for stating core values that accelerate the process of Radical Demotivation™:

    Guideline 1: The development of your company’s core values should be outsourced to consultants. Executives are often tempted to perform this task themselves, but when they do, the values they articulate tend to have too many references to “profitability” and “shareholder value”–things for which their employees have no regard. Consequently, they diminish the values’ collusive potential. In contrast, a good consulting company with a core competency in public relations can craft a set of values that the average wage-earner will find seductively appealing.

    Guideline 2: Core values should not be anchored to any transcendent social values. Some companies are part of industries that have the potential to fulfill values that virtually all of us hold. For example, pharmaceutical companies can serve the public good by helping to eradicate disease and relieve pain. Though it is tempting to refer to socially transcendent values in the statement of the company’s core value, you run the risk of creating a vision for your employees that is larger than the company.

    The problem with this is that it makes employees feel good about themselves, and despite the apparent benefits, it has the unintended consequence of reinforcing their narcissism. Fortunately, most of you own or run companies with little, if any, redeeming social value; they exist primarily to make you wealthy, and to provide access, for both you and your family, to the stature and respect that only money can buy. Therefore your value statements should be peppered with phrases like “quality products,” “industry leader,” “innovative” and “customer satisfaction.” These expressions have the benefit of generating widespread assent, while at the same time being devoid of any concrete semantic content.

    Guideline 3: Core values should be stated as ambiguously as possible. Stating your values ambiguously has two key benefits: (a) Employees will tend to infuse ambiguous statements with their own meanings, thereby generating widespread assent among people who hold significantly different understandings of the statements; and (b) the multiple meanings afforded to an ambiguous statement make it more difficult to hold you accountable for violating the value.

    Guideline 4: Your values should be inconsistent with your strategic market focus. In a Radically Demotivating corporate culture you need to determine your value discipline and state core values that conflict with it. For example, if your value discipline is operational efficiency and you have a budget that requires that you be lean and efficient, include a core value statement that references customer intimacy–something like “We go the extra mile for our customers.” If you do, your employees will always be conflicted between the company’s stated value (customer intimacy) and its clear, omnipresent, unarticulated value (operational efficiency). This creates a lose/lose situation for the employee. If they resolve the conflict in favor of the customer they can be chided for being slow, wasteful, or inefficient. On the other hand, if they resolve the conflict by efficiently discounting the customer’s input, they can be reproved for violating the company’s core values.

    This creates a win/win situation for executives. It gives them the freedom to be inconsistent–or even capricious–in their criticism of the way employees choose to resolve the conflict. Since any criticism can be rooted in the competing value, the conflict has the effect of taking any institutional power that would be conferred on the employees by acting consistent with one of the values and transferring that power to the executive who trumps them by pointing to the competing value.

    Since most of the employees will accept your core values without question, the conflict will manifest itself as an ill-defined sense of failure that they will learn to live with. Those that do identify and articulate the conflict are at risk of becoming troublemakers. If they begin to spread their theories about the value conflict, fire them before lucidity spreads throughout the organization like a staph infection.

    Guideline 5: One or more values should be anchored to objectives over which the employee has little control. The most obvious example is to create a value that targets customer satisfaction. Then, when a service or product fails, the employee is caught between trying to follow the company’s policy for handling such matters and satisfying the customers. If the employee has enough failure experiences and is reproached accordingly for violating the core value, he will begin to resent the customers. This will make it harder for him to treat them well and the entire demotivating process will begin again.

    Guideline 6: At least one of your core values should be employee-oriented. One of the old standards that has been used in scores of companies is very simply: “We treat our employees with respect and dignity.” Your employees will naturally buy into the value and hope that it is true, but with every conflict they encounter that resolves against them they will grow increasingly cynical.

    Now, imagine a workforce that is wholly committed to a set of values that simultaneously constrains their behavior and affords you the freedom to do as you please. Imagine a situation in which the employees who are typically the most obstinate and indignant are rendered mute by their hypocritical violation of the values they have publicly professed their allegiance to. Now imagine that you don’t have to imagine anymore. This is the promise of Radical Demotivation™.

Workforce Management, June 2005, pp. 10-12Subscribe Now!

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