AS WALMART grew into the world’s largest retailer, its staff were subjected to a long list of dos and don’ts covering every aspect of their work. Now the firm has decided that its rules-based culture is too inflexible to cope with the challenges of globalisation and technological change, and is trying to instil a “values-based” culture, in which employees can be trusted to do the right thing because they know what the firm stands for.
“Values” is the latest hot topic in management thinking.
A new study suggests there is less to this than it says on the label. It found that 43% of those surveyed described their company’s culture as based on command-and-control, top-down management or leadership by coercion—what Mr Seidman calls “blind obedience”. The largest category, 54%, saw their employer’s culture as top-down, but with skilled leadership, lots of rules and a mix of carrots and sticks, which Mr Seidman calls “informed acquiescence”. Only 3% fell into the category of “self-governance”, in which everyone is guided by a “set of core principles and values that inspire everyone to align around a company’s mission”.
The study found evidence that such differences matter. Nearly half of those in blind-obedience companies said they had observed unethical behaviour in the previous year, compared with around a quarter in the other sorts of firm. Yet only a quarter of those in the blind-obedience firms said they were likely to blow the whistle, compared with over 90% in self-governing firms.
Lack of trust may inhibit innovation, too. More than 90% of employees in self-governing firms, and two-thirds in the informed-acquiescence category, agreed that “good ideas are readily adopted by my company”. At blind-obedience firms, fewer than one in five did.
Tragicomically, the study found that bosses often believe their own guff, even if their underlings do not. Bosses are eight times more likely than the average to believe that their organisation is self-governing.
Some 27% of bosses believe their employees are inspired by their firm. Alas, only 4% of employees agree. Likewise, 41% of bosses say their firm rewards performance based on values rather than merely on financial results. Only 14% of employees swallow this.
Interesting findings: rule based < value based, but the latter is harder to implement in an organization. Self governance requires both top and bottom: recruiting the right people is more efficient than training people into the right ones.