Leadership Nugget # 14: The Impact Of Visible Values on Organization Culture

Does it help to post scripture verses or virtuous quotes in a person’s cubicle or at the bottom of e-mails? Several studies, quoted below, explored that issue. The results of these studies have some food for thought in actions necessary to build healthy organizational cultures.

“In a series of studies, subjects were told that they’d earn more money if they got their teammates (who were actually researchers) to unwittingly spread a lie. In their email signatures, some teammates included a quote about integrity (“Success without honor is worse than fraud”), while others used a neutral quote (“Success and luck go hand in hand”) or no quote at all. If subjects decided to do the unethical thing, they were far less likely to try to involve someone who displayed a virtuous quote than other team members. And when subjects were presented with such a quote, the likelihood that they’d send a deceptive message at all was generally lower. So a virtuous quote not only shielded a teammate from being asked to do a bad thing, but it also seemed to regulate the subjects.”

The study looked at 104 pairs of workers and their managers. It surveyed the supervisors to ask how often their subordinates displayed religious symbols at their desks… and the subordinates about how often their bosses asked them to do something dubious. Even after controlling for other factors, such as job satisfaction, those who displayed religious symbols were less likely to be asked to act unethically.
“It causes others in their vicinity to behave slightly more ethical,” Sreedhari Desai, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s business school, said.”If the person happens to be your boss, they would be less likely to ask you to do something that’s unethical.” http://www.latimes.com/topic/education/colleges-universities/university-of-north-carolina-at-chapel-hill-OREDU0000491-topic.html”

In his article, “Why We Lie”, Dan Ariely writes,

“My colleagues and I … took a group of 450 participants, split them into two groups and …asked half of them to recall the Ten Commandments and the other half to recall 10 books that they had read in high school. Among the group who recalled the 10 books, we saw the typical widespread but moderate cheating. But in the group that was asked to recall the Ten Commandments, we observed no cheating whatsoever. We reran the experiment, reminding students of their schools’ honor codes instead of the Ten Commandments, and we got the same result. We even reran the experiment on a group of self-declared atheists, asking them to swear on a Bible, and got the same no-cheating results yet again.

This experiment has obvious implications for the real world. While ethics lectures and training seem to have little to no effect on people, reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have a significant effect on behavior.

Another set of our experiments, conducted with mock tax forms, convinced us that it would be better to have people put their signature at the top of the forms (before they filled in false information) rather than at the bottom (after the lying was done). Unable to get the IRS to give our theory a go in the real world, we tested it out with automobile-insurance forms. An insurance company gave us 20,000 forms with which to play. For half of them, we kept the usual arrangement, with the signature line at the bottom of the page along with the statement: “I promise that the information I am providing is true.” For the other half, we moved the statement and signature line to the top. We mailed the forms to 20,000 customers, and when we got the forms back, we compared the amount of driving reported on the two types of forms.
People filling out such forms have an incentive to under report how many miles they drive, so as to be charged a lower premium. What did we find? Those who signed the form at the top said, on average, that they had driven 26,100 miles, while those who signed at the bottom said, on average, that they had driven 23,700 miles—a difference of about 2,400 miles. We don’t know, of course, how much those who signed at the top really drove, so we don’t know if they were perfectly honest—but we do know that they cheated a good deal less than our control group.”

Leadership Implications:

Everyone is concerned about culture. How does one build healthy behaviors? Two actions are required.

1. Inhibit undesirable behaviors
Cultures are dependent on avoiding unacceptable behaviors. Avoiding inappropriate actions is pone aspect of building a healthy culture. Visible values can clearly serve as a deterrent to wrong behaviors by reminding people what the standard is.

2. Enhance healthy behaviors
Cultures are not built just by avoiding the negative. Rather, positive behaviors must be practiced, accepted and spread to others. One of the aspects of healthy cultures is to take the values and principles that guide the organization culture and to determine how to apply and practice those principles in different situations and settings. Visible values serve to build positive behaviors by reminding people principle or value is to be practiced.

Reminders at the point of contact have the most significant impact on an organization’s culture. Training done in a classroom long removed from the office or production floor has little impact on how people behave. Wall charts and poster that blend into the decor and become invisible to the working force have little or no impact.

Individuals that take a position on what they stand for have the most positive impact on behavior and as a result, culture. Reminding people of their accountability at the point of decision or action is the single most powerful force to influence organizational behavior.

Cultures become confused when different people express myriad values in multiple different ways. While these values may protect an individual from an inappropriate request, it does not build consistent culture behaviors.Basically the lesson is this: too many individual values equals no organizational values. Many values create a cacophony of noise which neutralizes and subdues any values from being prominent.

Want to promote healthy behaviors? Promote pinpointed organizational values at the point of decision.

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1 comment

  1. I really appreciate this article and the insight into the research you are citing. Thank you for sharing this with us. It helps to support the work that compliance and ethics professionals strive to do. To your point regarding posters in workplace blending into the background, I wonder if statements or written messages made at the point of decision, will also “fade into the background” over time, or is there research to support that too. It seems like an additional point may need to be made that messages need to be living and breathing and you need to constantly assess and change them to avoid them “falling on deaf ears.”

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