Our So Called Values – Situational Values

Situational values are not values – they are strategies. Here’s a good example:


We strive to be recognized by our stakeholders as setting the standard among the world’s great companies for integrity and principled performance. This is more than just doing the right thing. We also have to do it in the right way.

Honesty, trust, and integrity are essential for meeting the highest standards of corporate governance. 

Our ethics are the sum of all the decisions each of us makes every day. Everything we do is built on trust. It doesn’t happen with one transaction, in one day on the job, or in one quarter. It’s earned relationship by relationship.”

Wells Fargo Bank, from their published handbook on vision and values

This was one of the values supposedly in place during the entire time that some Wells Fargo employees opened 2 million fictitious accounts without informing their customers. Responsibility for the problem reached all the way to the CEO (he may not have been complicit but it happened on his watch).

Ethics was a value intended to be applied every day – in all situations, large and small – unless, of course, circumstances led to another course, dictated by decisions of line managers who fell victim to the pressures of immediately achieving impossible goals. And while the short-term ends appeared to justify the means (as long as conduct could be camouflaged) when the truth came out, the costs were staggering.

Situationally speaking we could say, “these are our unconditional values – unless, of course, others will serve us better.” Which is exactly how and why situational values become behavioral strategies – used when convenient and abandoned when not.

Don’t delude yourself into thinking that scandals like these only occur in large organizations. Situational values are rampant throughout companies and government agencies of all sizes, in all industries – just like yours.

Why is that?
  • Pressure to perform –to hit goals that are beyond ambitious and the rewards for achieving them are high and the consequences for failure are severe.
  • There is no measurable accountability for failing to live your stated values. The absence of accountability is a seductive invitation to choose instant gratification over sustainable stability, personal power over organizational excellence and the expedient choice over the “right thing to do.”
  • The absence of a deep commitment to the stated values – driven by choosing to be politically correct over having the courage to be authentically real. When that happens, the temptations to “forget” your values, at some point, simply win.
  • There are other reasons as well. Think about them. Become aware of your own demons.
Some things you can do:
  • Ask yourself what values you are personally willing to be held accountable for. This is the same “to-do” item I mentioned in my previous article on accountability. That is the nature of values; they all interconnect. So your actions continuously weave together and link your values together in one seamless tapestry. Whatever you and your senior leadership team are not willing to be held accountable for becomes situational. Once a value becomes situational, trying to hold people consistently accountable for living it will actually work against you. People (both inside and outside your company) will call you phony, disingenuous and hypocritical. And they’d be right.
  • Carefully examine your own thoughts and motives regarding what kinds of situations might make you compromise or abandon any given value based on the issues and potential outcomes associated with the kinds of actions you would want to take. If you deem the actions necessary and they contradict your values – don’t declare those beliefs to be your values. Authenticity is preferable to political correctness – every time.
  • If too many of your stated values seem situational, look deeper and examine what your true values really are. The beliefs that you will fall back on in extreme situations are your real values. Learn how to tell your people the truth about them in the most positive way possible. Also, alternatively examine the potential positive and negative outcomes of your deeply held beliefs and ask “what would it take” to change my dysfunctional beliefs into new beliefs that can produce better results over the long-term.
  • Then go get the help and resources you’ll need to make those desired changes a reality.
  • There’s more, of course, but this is a good way to begin.

If you have some other ideas or want to further explore the ones I’ve set forth, don’t be bashful. Reach out and send me your comments.


By Bill Leider:

Bill is a Managing Partner at Axies Group – a consulting firm, focused primarily on helping leaders develop Balanced Organizations, focused on Vision, Values, Values-driven leadership, Culture, Strategy and Greater Purpose. Clients range from Fortune 500’s to mid-size companies to start-ups in many industries He has also been the CEO of both publicly held and privately owned companies. His book: Brand Delusions looks at Brands from a holistic perspective and has been critically acclaimed.


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