Vices, Virtues and Values

July 3, 2024

We often hear about values. Values that are at the core of our sense of self, values that are advocated by our organisation and people within them, or values pinned to a wall that no one has looked at since 2004.

But values – the known, but hard to articulate, moral line that governs our behaviour – are there whether we like it or not. What’s more, they inevitably have a part to play in our organisational cultures and our place within them. For example, even if we say we’re customer focused on our posters and motivational rubber bracelets, reality may bear little resemblance.

Given that’s true, should we pay more attention?

Starting with something obvious, values appear in several models as a core component of culture. Indeed, the idea of capturing organisation ideals into values is often intended as a reference point for a perceived or intended culture. For example, if we say that as an organisation, we value candour, we would hope to see that played out and present somehow. Feedback should be prompt and direct, disagreements between peers should be openly shared and resolved and so on. It might not be very comfortable for those involved, but it seems like we know what it means.

The ‘it seems like’ is where I think it gets interesting. Even for values that are very common, like collaboration, an innocent individual word is open to wide confusion and interpretation – especially when many people attempt to understand it.

Let’s look at some values for an actual company in the UK:

1.     Collaboration

2.     Efficiency

3.     Respect

4.     Openness

5.     Creativity

6.     Customer focus

There’s nothing out of the ordinary here, so it should be easy to expand on them with some narrative and know what I’m supposed to do on Monday morning.

1. Collaboration. Working together means we can achieve more, and because of the combination of expertise and ideas, potentially better results too. However, there’s a trade-off. If we collaborate widely, tasks we’re trying to complete will take longer and cost more. Like the myth in project management that increasing headcount makes things go faster; it doesn’t. People need to ramp up, will distract others, and the more opinions we put into decisions, the slower things can go.

2. Efficiency. Straight after collaboration, we value efficiency.  I guess that means looking for opportunities to save costs, limit waste and reduce repetitive work? However, isn’t this in direct conflict with collaboration, or are we being asked to balance them? It would probably have been more efficient not to have any values in the first place.

3. Respect. I’m going to need more information on this one. Is it respectful to preserve the feelings of my colleagues and customers, or is it better to tell them exactly what I think? With respect, I don’t understand the intention of this value.

4. Openness. A synonym for truthfulness and bluntness, does that double up on respect to make sure that I pull no punches? “Dear executive team, your values are dreadful.”

5. Creativity. Creativity is essential, of course. Where do we anticipate people will be creative, and at what cost, however? Attempting innovative ideas is notoriously inefficient, I thought. Someone I worked with years ago suggested seating everyone alphabetically.  Creative? Yes. Efficient?

6. Customer focus. The ubiquitous statement, and I love it more when it’s at the end of the list. It reads to me as an afterthought and perhaps worse because someone thought we should. I suspect we should collaborate with them, and be respectful and open? “No, dear customer, your idea is stupid.”

You could accuse me of being unnecessarily cynical, but these lists of company values are pasted across the web. I no longer think the internet runs on cats. I think it runs on asinine and cliched corporate advice.

Meanwhile, going back to my description that values are the known, but hard to articulate, moral line that governs our behaviour, how else could we approach them?

Let’s try coming at this from the perspective of virtues and vices, the subject of Alasdair MacIntyre’s enlightening book, After Virtue. [i] MacIntyre provides a broad and fascinating insight into moral theory and how, especially post-enlightenment, we have struggled to agree to shared moral principles. Central is a discussion about virtue. MacIntyre notes how what one society or group might find virtuous, another society may not. Pick up any newspaper and you will find examples of how attitudes vary – for example, towards women and girls in education across the globe, how refugees are treated, or a conversation about free speech.

A second observation from MacIntyre is that a virtue today can quickly transfer to a vice as time changes opinion. Consider ancient Greece, where the physical strength and military skill of a man were virtuous. A well-trained man, able to achieve martial feats, exemplified an ideal virtue in ancient Athens, but somehow that seems less fitting in modern-day Croydon. In Victorian England, many considered chastity a virtue, alongside deferential and overtly disciplined children. Even thievery is presented as a virtue in the story of Robin Hood. We know that Hood commits a crime when he robs carriages to give money to the poor, yet the moral position is accepted as virtue, especially in contrast to the vicious and uncaring Sheriff of Nottingham.

I think there’s something in this, and we gain an advantage over values to describe culture by providing a comparison: what we want, and what we do not want. Discussing both gives us a difference to orient with; it tells us that we should be between two places, rather than wildly trying to find our feet around one. Briefly, differences are also something that we innately handle very well – think contrasting colours, a sound you haven’t heard before, a sharp edge on an object etc.

To illustrate, let’s use a virtue/vice lens for three of the values above.

1. Collaboration

Example virtues: Act to engage and support your colleagues in their endeavours. Provide information and open access to resources that enable them to progress. Spend time agreeing boundaries for longer engagements.

Example vices: Seeking wide opinion and support for well-known activities. Collaborating when it will mean you become overworked. Making every decision collaboratively and ‘by committee’ when there are other options to maintain pace.

2. Efficiency

Example virtues: Look out for, share or act upon processes, tools and activities that create waste. Automate repetitive work, and especially when a task adds no direct value. Challenge over-collaboration – collaboration for the sake of it – when you are invited or invite others to work together.

Example vices: Engaging large groups of people in decisions, unless it actively involves them. Creating process and procedures – notably forms and administration – for obvious or low importance activities. Delaying feedback for candidates in the hiring process.

3. Customer focus.

Example virtues: Follow up with customers post sale, post support or other engagement to check they have what they need. Challenge decisions from the perspective of a customer and the experience that it might create for them. Spend time ‘in the field’ with customers – help if you need to help, teach if you need to teach, but primarily focus on listening to their challenges and needs.

Example vices: Make customer engagement a process to follow for audit and compliance, rather than a way of working. Make promises to customers that you don’t keep. Always look for a sale in every conversation.

All of these were written quickly (and without collaboration 😉) and clearly not every eventuality can be listed. However, the positioning of virtue/vice, good/bad, gives us some context to work with, and only a few lines should be enough. We are adults and social animals, able to assess and quickly learn the demeanour of others and build up an unconscious sense of what is normal – what is our culture – in a group. By extension, if we want a lever to pull to develop our culture or make a change, we can update and clarify our desired vices and virtues: “We would like to see more of these things, and fewer of these. Can you help?”

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1982).