Values: The one area where you don’t want diversity?

In part one of this blog, we looked at why candidate fit is so important when hiring for growth, how it can turn into an excuse for excluding people, and how most of the time problems with a candidate’s fit can be solved with a little open-mindedness and flexibility.

It’s a different matter when you’re looking at fit for values. What is important to them? What do they believe is fair or unfair, right or wrong? What do you believe? Values can sound woolly, but they are deadly serious. If your values don’t fit, you’re toast.

toast graphic

Common values – and through them, a common cause – are the foundation of people working together, because they underpin the trust that binds relationships. They allow us to have different personalities and views and yet still cooperate effectively because we all agree on the ‘why’; they allow conflict to be constructive because they allow conflict to be resolved.

As Professor Joeri Hofmans wrote in the Harvard Business Review, this can have major benefits for things like innovation. “[This is] due to team members identifying more strongly with the team, which led them to be more accepting of diverse ideas and approaches of the other team members. Innovation often involves conflict and difficult processes; value similarly can help keep everyone aligned.”

Take common values away, conversely, and all sorts of things go wrong: clashes become feuds. Trust, psychological safety and engagement evaporate. People start pulling in different directions. Culture turns toxic.

Knowing your values

Values fit is clearly important, but how do you get it? The obvious starting point is finding out what a person’s values are, but this isn’t as straightforward as asking them, not least because people are rarely fully aware of them in the way they’re aware of their skills.

Indeed, we often mean very different things when we talk about specific values.

Take fairness. We all believe in fairness – when was the last time you met someone in a conflict who believed they were the one being unfair? – so to be meaningful we need to know: 1) how important fairness is to someone relative to other values (it means rather less if they value ‘winning’ significantly more); and 2) what actually constitutes fairness to them.

If a team member has been ill for a long term and has consequently underperformed, causing more work for everyone else, is it fair that they share in a team bonus? Is it fair to sack them?

If your generation rose through the ranks by working gruelling hours for little pay, is it fair that the next generation gets an easier ride or should they just stop complaining and do their time?

Are all-women candidate shortlists fair because they correct a structural inequality or is that just a case of two wrongs not making a right?

It’s only through the lens of choices – above all made in practice rather than just on paper – that you can start to see what a person’s values are and what they are not.

This process applies equally to you and your organisation, of course, which means discovering the values that are lived in the business, not the ones brainstormed with HR and plastered on kitchen notice boards. Again, this isn’t easy, particularly for a leadership team, which can easily become remote from people on the frontline.

The problem of diversity

Once you have your values defined, it would seem straightforward what to do with them.

While it’s true that a person’s values are not set in stone – we can change, we can rub off on each other, our values are to an extent contextual – it’s a high-risk bet to assume that someone who prioritises self-interest, power and ruthlessness will ever fit with an organisation that celebrates cooperation, integrity and the common good.

This means that values are one of the few areas in business where on the face of it diversity isn’t a good thing. You want people with different perspectives and opinions, life experiences and personalities, but you don’t want to work with people with diametrically opposing views on what constitutes decent, professional, moral behaviour.

However, we should still be mindful of using values fit as an excuse for exclusion. Firstly, the complexity of human nature means it’s very unlikely other people will share your values precisely, and modest variations aren’t necessarily a problem.

Secondly, it’s far too easy to blur the boundaries between personal or business values and political values; supporting Leave or Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum isn’t a good judge of whether you can work with someone, and dividing organisations along party fault lines would be as bad for society as Facebook echo chambers, and as bad for business as any other form of arbitrary exclusionary behaviour.

All this means that values and values fit need to be approached with rigour, care and professionalism – they are too important to be a knee-jerk thing.

The good news is that, if we do this, then our businesses will be stronger, more aligned, more purposeful, more attractive to talent and – if you value these things – more diverse and inclusive too.