Values in action stories

Posted by  Mark Schenk —October 7, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling

Most organisations have a set of values statements. Many of these do not reflect reality as displayed in the behaviours of people within the organisation. For example…’we value working collaboratively’ is displayed on the wall but people are told “do it my way or else” by managers; deriding other areas of the business is effectively endorsed when people are not ‘called’ on the behaviour.

We had a fun day on Thursday running our ‘Storytelling for Business Leaders’ workshop in Sydney. The group chose ‘values in action’ as one of the story patterns they wanted to examine in detail. We came up with four questions you can ask to help identify the values at work in organisations:

  • Think about a time when a manager made a tough decision, and did ‘the right thing rather than the easy thing’. What happened?
  • When have you seen someone ‘cross the line’ and they were ‘called’ on it. Alternatively, have you seen people ‘cross the line’ without being called.
  • When have you felt uncomfortable about something your boss has done?
  • When have you felt proud to work for this company?

Can you think of other questions that could help explore an organisation’s values?

I also related an example of a values in action story from our workshop in Brisbane in August.

A company introduced a new health and safety policy for mobile phone use while driving. The policy was “engine on, phone off”. Some time after the policy was introduced the company did a random call-around of about 50 employees. A senior manager answered his phone while driving. The response was “turn around, return your vehicle, give the keys to reception and clear your desk. Your employment with this company is over”. The rationale was that the manager could not help enforce a policy that he was abusing himself.

For me this story says very clearly ‘we value health and safety’. However, the story didn’t seem to be well received by the workshop participants, possibly because firing the manager seemed a little draconian. What do you think?

Mark Schenk About  Mark Schenk

Mark works globally with senior leadership teams to improve their ability to communicate clearly and memorably. He has been a Director of Anecdote since 2004 and helped the company grow into one of the world’s leading business storytelling consultancies. Connect with Mark on:


  1. Luke says:

    Mark – another one might be to uncover stories of when the espoused values were “lived”. An example question would be:
    When have you heard someone in your organisation say “But that decision does not equate with our organisational values”.
    Sometimes, I relate a story of a particular organisation that had a culture of naming behaviours that did not sit with their values – this openness ensured that the values were lived rather than just espoused.

  2. Dec says:

    I have just begun working on a project to gather data regarding exactly the kind of phenomenon you are discussing to be used in a presentation for a group of airline pilots. What I am trying to get at is a way to discuss/illustrate the gap between the written, published, hard-and-fast guidance (leading to the ostensibly expected performance/behaviour) on the one side and the unpublished, informal culture of what ACTUALLY occurrs in the organization. I am aware of the concepts of “norms” and Dekker’s Drift into Failure, etc. but are there organizational/sociological concepts/theories/paradigms that address this “gap” directly?

  3. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Luke,
    Good question. It reminds me of a company I worked for where most tough decisions ended up in a discussion about how the various options sat with the company values. BTW, everyone in that company could recite the values (I still can today).

  4. Mark Schenk says:

    Hi Dec,
    We have done several projects exploring a company’s values in action using a business narrative (story listening) approach. We will collect anecdotes (experiences, examples, events) of how people experience the values of the company on a day-to-day basis. We then use a group sensemaking approach so the company can determine what patterns are revealed. Key factors are to ensure the company figures things out for themselves (so it is not seen as an external, expert view), to engage with a representative cross-section of the staff during the collection and to ensure people focus on their experiences rather than on their opinions. Happy to talk further on how you might use this sort of approach.

  5. Hi everybody,
    Another question :
    If I tell you the word “value”, does it make you think “how much” or “how many” ?

  6. Hi Stephane, I would think, “How much I value” rather than “How many I value.”

  7. Tom Graves says:

    Hmm, yes – good questions to ask. Another question we used at Police was “What values do you celebrate?” – in other words, what values-in-action did they give awards for, or illustrate with stories in their internal magazine and the like. (Turned out these values-as-lived were quite a bit different from the ‘official’ list of values, by the way. 🙂 )

Comments are closed.