I heard today of a senior manager saying to his team, “I’ve been told by management to tell you we are building a values based culture”. Then he did one of those eye roles. Before we condemn him, this is not an uncommon scenario.
Why is it people are so cynical about ethics? After all what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ is the DNA of a flourishing culture. Yet often in organisations,when values and principles are spoken about they are dismissed as management speak. When I heard this (familiar) story I put myself in that person’s shoes – attempted to see it from his perspective. The background is a culture in which there has been a lot of “transformation” (read, 900 people losing jobs in a restructure) as well as a couple of incidences of publicly known corrupt practice. What has resulted is a culture of disaffection and complaint. THis has been inherited by a new CEO who recognises the legacy and embarks on re-building a culture that is values based, one she believes will give people the opportunity to flourish. Yet, she and the team of values advocates who are bravely attempting to re-introduce ethical literacy into the culture are confronted with cynicism and eye rolling. I remember a quote from Bernard Zanders The Art of Possibility. “Cynical people are optimistic people who have lost hope”. When one has lost hope the past is difficult to let go. Another wonderful leader I have had the privilege to work with also inherited disaffected people in a toxic culture and has successfully turned around the culture in her part of a large organisation. The first thing she did was to provide a space in which people could talk; could tell their stories of hopelessness. She demonstrated moral courage; the courage to give a safe space in which the stories of despair could be aired – a very human process that is essential to moving forward. It takes moral courage to listen as well as to speak out. Many leaders will not go there. She listened deeply and authentically. What happened was the re-emergence of hope. With hope again, people began to share what really mattered to them. This was the beginning of a re energised values-based culture.