useful values / guiding principles from ethics

useful values / guiding principles from ethics

2020, Nov 08    

What we value is foundational to how we approach our lives, how we prioritise our time, and how we interact with one another. In society, in companies, in communities like families and friendship groups.

Our values already exist: in every group, there’s a set of shared or overlapping values. Perhaps you value being demonstratively affectionate to one another: your group chat is likely kind words, animal gifs, wishing each other luck and good vibes on stressful days, or arranging karaoke dates so you can sweetly serenade one another. Maybe you value learning, and that manifests through book recommendations, DMing each other links to thought-provoking articles, attending salons and watching documentaries together.

Often these values shift as the group changes, and as you change the group that you’re in. I find myself leaning harder into some of my values with a particular group of friends, and a different set with my family or my coworkers.

In companies, it’s fundamental that we’re able to talk coherently about what we value, especially if we want to preserve some of this sense of belonging as we scale. Culture is the manifestation of values, it’s the glue that binds us; to reinforce and steer this, we need to have a clear, shared understanding of what’s important to us all in how we work together.

A company’s mission, or a team’s mission, establishes what problem space is addressed; values and culture become the how underlying the business strategy to achieve the company’s mission.

I think it’s really interesting to observe the language that we use when talking about company values. People refer to “the right behaviours” or being a “good” employee. We’ve borrowed the language of ethics - and I don’t think this is a coincidence at all.

In fact, there are three frameworks in ethics that have striking parallels to how we set out what’s good or right in a company or business. One of these lends itself exceptionally well to framing company values.

Just writing on the wall?

Before we dive into my weird Good-Place-esque rundown of metaethics as applied to companies, I want to explore a little bit what makes a good set of values.

There’s a trope that every startup should have five pithy values that can be neatly painted onto the wall (and then a couple of pages explaining what each of them actually means!). And that is often the endpoint - something polished by a copywriter that gets thrown onto t-shirts or notebooks or painted on a wall back when a physical office felt important.

But often we miss a step. We get the polished pithy phrases, but don’t draw them from the right place. This process of understanding and surfacing what your team values has to be descriptive. It’s a weird, difficult, fun, generative, iterative journey of discovery. You’ll find the intrinsic qualities that you deem valuable in the people you all want to work with (smart, considerate), and the extrinsic qualities that you value in how you interact with one another (straightforward, open to early feedback).

This discovery process is so important to building a healthy and meaningful company culture. Values are so, so important - they’re what the culture is built on, they’re what bring us joy and meaning every day. But we dismiss them because so often they do end up just being a set of catchy but empty phrases painted on a wall.

I have two examples of pithy phrases masquerading as values which just aren’t useful:

Get shit done. This one baffles me because it provides no direction. What shit should I be getting done? What’s the best way to get it done? At what point is my shit done enough? Especially in the context of a company, where I get paid to do a job - my side of the employment contract is about getting shit done! You can tell me to value doing shit as much as you like, but this adds zero value when you consider that, contractually, as soon as I stop getting shit done, you’ll stop paying me!

Don’t be evil. I have a bunch of issues with this as a thing to value. Firstly, how are we defining evil? Secondly, can I do evil without being evil? What if it’s unintentional? Thirdly, is not being evil enough, or should I strive to be good? And if so, what is good? I used to say “be good, have fun” when I dropped my kid off at school in the mornings, but I’ve switched to “have fun, learn something” because it feels more directionally useful. I think “be good” sometimes reads as “don’t get told off”, and I’ve definitely been told off for doing what was right.

Honestly compared to these, if you’re going to paint something on your wall, I’d actually favour “live, laugh, love”. It’s more like a useful value statement than either of these - it’s clear that love and laughter are states to optimise for, which can at least guide the behaviours we choose. Tell me to “live, laugh, love” and my constraints are tighter than “don’t be evil”. Plus there’s already a bunch of wall decals on etsy!

Useful values

Our values affect how we go about achieving things and interacting with others. They capture the quirks, traits and essences of the things that make your company and your community who they are. For me, useful values have two properties: they are opinionated, and they guide behaviour.

The things that you in particular value have to take a perspective and a point of view. And it needs to be a meaningful point of view - where you can envisage a world where many very reasonable people take a conflicting point of view.

You know you have pinpointed genuinely useful values if you can use them to make decisions about what you do and how you do it. Particularly in high stress or difficult situations: for instance, how you approach interpersonal conflict or even conflicting priorities.

Both “don’t be evil” and “get shit done” fail on both counts - I can’t imagine anyone pasting the opposite on an office wall, and I can’t imagine solving a problem by using either. They are about as generic as you can be. Likewise “integrity” is not especially meaningful as a value; what would it mean to be a reasonable person who holds a value that’s contradictory to that?

“Move fast”, on the other hand, is absolutely meaningful. Depending on the context, you could choose to move fast; to be cautious; to take thoughtful and deliberate action; to prioritise perfection over speed. “Build to last” would take an opposing point of view, but be meaningful - as would “excellence always”. None of these three stances are objectively better than the others, which is great! Pick one and you now have a value that not only takes a perspective, but also influences how you work.

Values are a flavour of ethics

Our values delineate what we encourage and praise, and what is frowned upon or even punished. They set out what is right and what is wrong within the company. Values layer over the top of the ethical and moral norms of the society where you operate - like, the laws and regulatory principles and business governance.

When we internalise values as a sort of ethical system, it makes a lot of sense to adopt an ethics framework in order to establish how we want to think about values. Ethical systems concern themselves less with what specific acts are moral or immoral, and more with how we systematically determine this. So I want to focus less on what specific things we value, and more on how we frame values.

I’ll briefly outline three approaches to ethics from the western philosophical canon, and how the combination of the three gives us a strong framework for thinking about right and wrong in a company.

Categorical imperatives and the law

One approach to ethics is through the categorical imperative: ethics should be a system of commands which are always, unconditionally, universally the correct and right way to act.

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” Judaism and Christianity’s Ten Commandments take the form of categorical imperatives.

There are no exceptions to the imperative. If, as a collective, we set out that lying is wrong, then it is not ever permissible for anyone to lie. This is super clear cut, which appeals to those who like simplicity! But humans are messy. The workplace is ambiguous, the decisions we make in our jobs are nuanced. There are a lot of behaviours that are context-dependent, or require a trade-off. So the universal commandment approach can’t capture the delightful quirks of one company over another - they are adopted by everyone.

But there is something useful in considering this approach. Let’s assume that there is a subset of actions which are either good or bad, based on whether everyone should do it, or everyone should not do it. In a company context, this approach is really useful in two places: the first is laws, regulation and governance. For example, it is never acceptable to commit fraud. The second is process and policies. For example, in our company, it is never acceptable to bully or harass others.

I referenced “don’t be evil” earlier, and for me that falls into the categorical imperative category, as does “only hire the best”. But there’s a whole layer of nuance beneath these that we need to unpick to determine what they mean within a particular company - “the best” is subjective, we characterise it through traits that we deem valuable, and those just won’t apply to everyone.

Utilitarianism and stakeholder benefit

“It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

A second approach to ethics is utilitarianism - where an act is good based entirely on its consequences and which way they swing happiness. In the context of a company, the clearest parallel is where a lot of what you do - the goals you set - optimise for stakeholder benefit (which includes profit and user happiness).

One of the difficulties with utilitarianism is that it is entirely based on consequences, intention has no role to play at all. This theory of ethics would judge someone’s actions good if they want to harm you, try to harm you, but fails and accidentally leaves you better off somehow.

Laying this over the categorical imperatives of law and regulation, we start to get closer to how we can think about running a company: optimising stakeholder benefit within the confines of the law, maximising profit without committing fraud, creating an intuitive and simple experience while meeting compliance requirements.

To loop back to company values - consequences are often unpredictable, so utilitarianism doesn’t provide that behaviour-guiding element that makes values useful.

Virtue ethics and values

“We are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it.”

Virtue ethics stems from the work of Aristotle, who takes a delightfully pragmatic approach as the quote above illustrates. The central concept is that there are a series of virtuous qualities, each of which is the golden mean on a spectrum from deficiency to excess - and that a good action is one which, in context, demonstrates virtue.

A great example of this is helpfulness. In startups, I’ve seen helpfulness awarded the status of a virtue.

This makes a lot of sense in a very early-stage, small team: there are many areas where nobody in particular is accountable for improving things, a lot of collaboration, and inputs from across the group are crucial in order to make high quality decisions.

If we think about values as a binary, you have helpfulness and lack of helpfulness. But virtue theory asks us to put the value as the golden mean, the ideal balance between an excess and a deficiency. And in the workplace, there absolutely is such a thing as being too helpful.

This mindset shift, this call to frame values as a midpoint between two undesirable states, unveils something I’ve seen happen repeatedly: when helpfulness is what is prized and recognised, people prioritise going out of their way to be helpful to others, and it’s their own goals that suffer. This excess of helpfulness has damaging effects on focus and achievement.

Under virtue theory, we’d frame helpfulness as the golden mean between being selfish and being unwilling to prioritise personal accountability. For me, this provides a really enlightening mental shift, as it explicitly clarifies the trade-off.

What do you value?

I’m working on the assumption that you’re reading this because you care about company culture or organisational values. If you want to apply this to your personal values, or have never thought about what you value before, I’d strongly recommend reading this piece by Anne-Laure Le Cunff before you read on.

Let’s critically assess the values your company has. For each of them, let’s reflect on the following questions:

  • Has it guided my behaviour in the past?
  • Does this help me choose between two routes of action?
  • When I make a mistake, does this guide me on what to do?
  • Would focussing on this change the way I’d resolve a conflict?
  • What are the extremes of this value - the excess and the deficiency?

The beautiful thing about virtue theory is that by providing both excess and deficiency, it makes the value itself much clearer and easier to interpret, and helps us take action in the right direction.

If a value doesn’t meet the criteria above - if it’s not possible to frame as a virtue, and it’s not useful - it is worth considering whether this means it’s part of your business strategy (how you approach optimising stakeholder benefit) or whether it’s a table-stakes categorical imperative (and should be enshrined in policy).

Ultimately, the goal here is to have a shared set of things you value, which are easy to articulate, and genuinely guide behaviour and decisions. As I said at the start, these will change as your company grows and shifts and develops. This happens in a few directions: shifting where your golden mean sits on the spectrum; finding that something foundational needs to be articulated; a value might stop serving you well.

It’s a process of exploration and refinement and discovery - being conscious and intentional gives us the best chance of building a culture that lets us feel belonging, joy and meaning.

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