By Ed Mayo

At work, we bring our personal values to what we do but to fit in, we are also prompted to behave in ways that reflect the values of our workplace. Our context is a powerful determinant of how we act. So how can we best teach or learn the right values at work? This is a challenge that I have carried with me through my working life and the answer that I have found is simple and to me profound – that with the right framework of support, you learn by doing good.

But before we move on to explore what that framework of support can look like, let me give you the health warning. This context of work is not always a good thing. Remember that every organisation has values, but they may just be the wrong ones. Power, status and reward for example are values in the dictionary sense of the word and values too in the academic context of research on human behaviour. But if they dominate organisational life, they shape workplace cultures that are unequal, untrusting and uncaring. As Jane Jacobs explored in her book Systems of Survival, football hooligans have values. The mafia have values. They’re not what most would share but they offer a linked code, what she calls a moral syndrome, that they can coalesce around as a group. We learn ethical values by doing what is good, but conversely, we unlearn those values when we participate in or are complicit in what is bad.

To introduce myself, let me explain that one of my core personal values is fairness. I learned my values from my family and upbringing, but on this, I was a rebel. The family motto was ‘life isn’t fair’ and that was something, as a third child, I found I could never accept. As a student long ago, I was of the Live Aid generation and set about a range of small ventures, from a fundraising book to the charity rag, to make a difference. After university, I had the privilege to be part of the team that started the international Fairtrade Mark and following that I led the UK ethical thinktank the New Economics Foundation for a decade, before working in the co-operative business sector. I now run a charity, Pilotlight, that supports small charities by shaping that support, from those in the business world, into a learning experience. We are what would be called a ‘social enterprise’, a business rooted in values. I accept that life isn’t fair. Whether it is through my work, my writing or my children, I just want to be part of changing that.

As those working in values-based schools can attest, childhood learning matters, way before we enter the world of work. Our values are shaped by our early years and by our interactions with those around us. As children, we learn co-operation from those meet our needs. It is quite a gift. It takes 13 million calories to rear a modern human from birth to maturity argues Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, concluding that the capacity of our species, our line of apes, to develop patterns of ‘co-operative parenting’ has been essential for success.  Through this and various forms of socialisation, the formation of our character and our values takes shape, full of possibilities. Human values after all, including the deeper framing of faith and religion, are fabulously diverse.

Schools can influence children in a profound way around values, but often it is learned informally more than it is taught formally. The non-cognitive skills of emotional intelligence, including the ability to regulate your emotions and empathise with those of others, are often implicit and indirect outcomes of good schooling rather than ones that are explicit. They are not captured in much of the formal curriculum for learning, but they are carried in the life and pedagogy of the school as a social institution. In an infant school setting, one of the most profound ways of learning values of sociability and interdependence is the ‘circle time’, wonderful open, equal and inclusive. But on values, the learning doesn’t stop when we reach adulthood. We are all born with the ability to act ethically, just as we are all (or nearly all) born with the ability to sing or to run. And, as with singing or running, our innate abilities need to be cultivated and learned if we are to become good people. Values are nurtured but rarely entrenched, open over time through lifelong learning.

In work though there are obstacles. What prevents learning is often a challenge of authenticity. There is a gap between what organisations say and what they do – a values / action gap, which if too wide not only holds back the take-up of the values but undermines those values, because people learn from how people act more than they do from what people say. As Richard Sennett, the great sociologist argues, there is often a profound mismatch between the language of values in modern businesses and the experience of it. The language of teamwork in many an enterprise sits uncomfortably with the reality of hierarchies and inequalities of power and reward. Gideon Kunda, in the same spirit, castigates the approach by many managers to encouraging teamwork as a form of ‘deep acting’ – what he characterizes as the ‘feigned solidarity’ of the modern workplace.

So, how can ethical values be learned?

The starting point is to recognise how we learn at work. One framework that helps explore this is the 70 20 10 learning and development formula developed by Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership. The model suggests that there are three types of learning. 70% of learning comes from experience on the job, 20% comes from key, developmental relationships. Together, these two are typically classified as informal learning, leaving the remaining 10% of learning due to formal training. The take-away for values, as for many others areas of competence and capability, is that developing people is not simply about ‘sending them on a course’.

For the 70% on the job, it is simply impossible to expect learning on values if they are not aligned to what happens across an organisation. Culture change is notoriously hard – the saying is that business does not have a culture, business is a culture – and this is the reason why. Sometimes, in a crisis or with new ownership or leadership, it can be possible to unfreeze values in a short time and gain the consent and participation needed to refreeze them in a new way but these opportunities are rare. More commonly, it takes patience and time and one of the most important tools that has emerged to support the alignment of values across an organisation is the formation or affirmation of the core purpose of the organisation.

All values in an organizational setting are inevitably bound up in the nature of work. They have to help answer one central question, which is ‘why work?’ I know that work can have many meanings, but what I have seen over years of visiting ethical businesses, entrepreneurial start-ups and cause-related non-profits is that when there is an ethical purpose, and when people are motivated by values and a need which inspires them to act, there can be a richness in the motivation, because it is needs driven and sustaining of people and society. With a values lens, we can start to understand good work as about human dignity.

Fritjof Capra, writing in the Buddhist traditions of ‘right livelihood’, puts it more lyrically. He suggests that “we can’t be empowered by work that destroys the environment around us or creates systems of inequality. No matter how our work is organised, it cannot fully empower us unless we believe in its purpose.” And purpose has indeed become a defining feature of those businesses that do look to shape their culture and identity through reference to values. One of the longest-running examples is the co-operative business model, with 2.6 million co-operative enterprises operating worldwide, rooted in a shared set of seven core values and principles.

Alongside social learning from colleagues in the flow of work, there is then the scope to accelerate the development of values through the 20% input of key relationships. Arguably, this is missed out more often than the two other components of learning on the job and formal training, such as staff sessions or leadership briefings on culture and values. It is here that the work of Pilotlight fits with a distinctive offer of experiential learning. Pilotlight matches up business professionals (called ‘Pilotlighters’) with small charities and social enterprises in curated programmes of skills exchange. The focus is on doing good by providing organisational support for charities, fulfilling in its own right but also powerful in developing and reinforcing values-based leadership and action.

The practice of connecting people from business with the world of charity has a long history, including in the tradition of philanthropy as well as the modern field of employer supported volunteering. What is distinctive about the work of Pilotlight, a charity itself, has been the design of programmes to benefit charities that bring a parallel benefit in terms of leadership development and professional learning.

Pilotlight was started by Jane Tewson, the co-founder of Comic Relief. In Comic Relief, she had found a new way to encourage people to give money. With Pilotlight, she was looking for a new way to encourage people to give time. What was needed above all was support in the form of professional skills and support that smaller charities simply couldn’t afford. What she knew though was that unstructured philanthropy was a hit or miss affair. Above all, there was an imbalance of power. All too often, business leaders saw their role as telling those running charities what to do, while those in charities played the supplicant role of asking for help and support. Through Pilotlight, what evolved was a programme of skills transfer with a distinctive methodology designed to make the most of the skills on both side, charity and business, and to make the most of the opportunity for mutual learning through the process. 

Today, there are around 550 members of Pilotlight in the UK, giving their skills for public good using this methodology – in short forming teams that provide strategic coaching support for small charities and social enterprises through a process that is curated and evaluated with care, to ensure that the skills exchange is effective. For the charities, this is free support and the outcomes in terms of leadership learning and organisational development are significant. Charities that work with Pilotlight increase on average their reach, the number of service users or beneficiaries, by 36% in the two years after the support and their income by 40%. For the Pilotlighters, there is also learning both around the process of coaching in a very different context but also from the practices of the charity that they are supporting. Some of the key learning outcomes, all characteristics of purposeful leadership, include improved: confidence in working with values-led organisations; coaching skills; listening skills; understanding of different values perspectives; understanding of different contexts and styles of values-based leadership; personal networks and; understanding of social needs and the work of charities.

A longstanding partner of Pilotlight is Morgan Stanley, whose staff have been involved in a number of Pilotlight projects. “Long-term and enduring success lies in having a strong culture and talented employees who live our values” says James P Gorman, Chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley. The five core values for the bank are:

  • Do the right thing
  • Put clients first
  • Lead with exceptional ideas
  • Commit to diversity and inclusion
  • Give back

Rob Partakides for example is Regulatory Relations Group Executive Director. He has worked with Pilotlight and its partner charities since 2015, when he took part in Morgan Stanley’s annual Strategy Challenge, which is delivered by Pilotlight for the bank’s London colleagues. Although he had previously volunteered for charities, Partakides says he had “never really thought about how my business skills could be useful [to them]”. That Strategy Challenge as “a very humbling experience” which opened his eyes to new social issues, he says – but also a successful one – recommendations his team provided their charity mean that five years on, it is going from strength to strength.

Colleagues at Morgan Stanley have since worked with a number of other charities through Pilotlight, the most recent being London food waste and food poverty charity The Felix Project. Having worked with the charity to provide a range of recommendations for improving volunteer recruitment and retention strategies. Having been given a range of recommendations, its CEO Mark Curtin said: “It’s been invaluable to receive this input – I am very grateful for the recommendations we have been given.” Rob Partakides says that the experience of working with all these charities has benefited Morgan Stanley by improving his skills – learnings he has in turn passed on learnings to colleagues – and “inspired me to really think about what I can do to help some of society’s biggest challenges”.

Jane Drysdale is an HR consultant. For the past 11 years, she has been a Pilotlighter – and has also created partnerships between Pilotlight and some of her previous clients and employers. She says it’s very important for organisations to give employees opportunities to look beyond the day-to-day procedures and realities of their own organisation, and gain perspective on the outside world. “Whether it’s Pilotlight, employee volunteering days, being an Armed Forces reservist, a school Governor or whatever else, employees who do something that develops them outside of the office, gives them that reality check, it means that they’re not wholly dependent on their employer for their self-esteem,” she comments.

“You don’t want your staff feeling beholden to one organisation. It’s frightening how lacking in confidence some people are about their skills, and this in turn means that people don’t take risks in their own organisation, they don’t challenge their bosses, they play it safe – and it means the organisation probably isn’t getting the best out of them.”

Jane cites working with Leeds-based learning disability arts charity Pyramid of Arts as a particularly satisfying Pilotlight project. Her team’s work helped the charity create a new, more ambitious strategic plan in place, including a series of metrics which the board can use in order to ensure Pyramid is meeting its objectives. “After working with Pilotlight I feel like a more effective charity leader,” its director James Hill comments. Jane says she took pleasure not just in seeing the charity transformed, but in witnessing a transformation in fellow Pilotlighters – “they often come in with particular views and want to do things in a particular way – before long, they’ve developed much better questioning and coaching skills, and are using these both with the charity and in their day job”.

The core value that underpins the Pilotlight learning is that of sympathy, the building block according to Adam Smith of both society and economy. Sympathy, or empathy – a sense of the ‘other’ – underpins a wider palette of values, characterised under the typologies of Professor Shalom Schwartz as those of benevolence and universalism. Many of the leading corporate values are found within these clusters, but of course not all. If your true organisation values are to be the wolf of Wall Street, then learning by doing good, in the Pilotlight way, will not help or help perhaps in one respect alone, which is to give more of a value to compliance with regulations. The field of compliance has been quick to understand that it is not the articulation and policing of the rules but the question of whether workplace culture and behaviours support compliance that matters.  Even wolves in regulated sectors can have the license to trade withdrawn by the authorities.

The benefit of learning on values can sometimes take time to realise – it is one form of leadership development. Bill George is the former Chairman and CEO of Medtronic, the world’s leading medical technology company. Now a lecturer at Harvard, and author of the book Authentic Leadership, I listened to his story at a meeting of ‘young global leaders’, named by the World Economic Forum, some time back … when I was young. He cautioned that “those who develop a clear sense of their values before they get into a crisis,” he adds “are better prepared to keep their bearings and navigate through difficult decisions and dilemmas when the pressure mounts.”

The 10% of learning in the 70 20 10 model then points to formal training, which on values can take a wide variety of forms. One common approach, which helps to make culture change more visible, is through the use and sharing of diagnostic surveys, such as the Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument, Values Modes, which helps to identify common categories around share values, or the Cultural Transformation Toolkit developed by Richard Barrett, which is framed as a journey towards a culture of consciousness.

So, we do learn values at work, we can’t help but do so, but whether they are the right lessons and the right values is down to whether the right framework for learning is in place. Leaving this to chance is leaving to chance something that has profound importance for the culture and the future of any workplace.

If you want to see the right values in action, start with a little learning.

About the author

Ed Mayo is Chief Executive of Pilotlight, the business skills charity. He has been recognised for his work for ethical markets with an honorary doctorate by London Metropolitan University. An individual member of the UK Values Alliance, he has also authored the short business book ‘Values: how to bring values to life in your business’ (Routledge, 2016).


Further reading

Bill George (2004), Authentic Leadership, Jossey-Bass

Martin Flanagan (2020), The Art of Pollination: the Irrepressible Jane Tewson, Hardie Grant

Jane Jacobs (1994), Systems of Survival, Vintage Books

Ed Mayo (2016), Values, Routledge

Richard Sennett (2013), Together, Penguin

Adam Smith (1759), A Theory of Moral Sentiments, Penguin Classics

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