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The contemporary workplace is defined by changing values

They are invariably successful. Almost always, these core values generate other values in employees. But what if all our organizations started with the same short list? Wouldn't that give American industry, or the industry of any culture, an important leg up?

5 Core Values for the Workplace

It is particularly easy for business people to lie. I compiled a list of 46 reasons that executives lie. If I didn't lie about my loyalty to the firm, they would never have promoted me. If I hadn't lied, I would have exposed our firm to an unfair lawsuit. If the union knew our real profit prospects, they would beat us black-and-blue at the bargaining table.

There seems to be some compelling reasons to lie in certain situations. Although I've heard a few plausible defenses of lying, I'm not sure it is ever justified. Once a company starts to condone lying as a matter of course, it is headed for serious trouble.

In such businesses, lying becomes a game. And success goes to those who play it best. In an article titled, "Where Lying Was Business as Usual," Businessweek reviewed a book on the Wedtech Scandal, a Washington scandal of the late '80s in which a few government officials fed fat contracts to a dubious supplier. The reviewer, Harris Collingwood, concludes his piece, saying, "In the end, what's remarkable about the Wedtech gangsters isn't that they were crude and thuggish.

It's that among the sharp-elbowed hordes pushing through Washington's corridors of power, they didn't even stand out. Bob Waterman has written a penetrating little book, Adhocracy: The Power to Change. It narrates an engaging story about accountability in an energy-cogenerating firm called AES. The people in the Beaver Valley, Pennsylvania, AES plant learned what many workers and managers know across the country: They learned who is responsible for the way things run.

The answer, of course, is that they are. These powerful the contemporary workplace is defined by changing values terrorists, these mega-gremlins -- "they" -- are always there to gum up the works. They send the wrong material handling orders. They misprocess the medical claims. They forget to clean and maintain the machinery. A courageous top manager in this the contemporary workplace is defined by changing values, Bob Hemphill -- who is a leader, no doubt about it -- decided to declare war on "they.

In a particularly clever step, the workers created a system of organization called the honeycomb structure and organized themselves into families: Workers were also encouraged to move from family to family to expand their range of skills. In this way, AES was able to make the breakthrough on accountability, as each "family" also provided a framework of values that, in turn, became a basis for improving accountability.

Too often, managers demand diligence about the wrong things: According to Arno Penzias, the head of research at Bell Labs, the mother of one of his teachers at Columbia used to ask her son persistently when he was just a young school child, "Did you ask any good questions today, Isaac? The best firms are diligent about uncommon things -- for example, asking creative questions. I'm afraid that we lose the value of diligence as a positive force early in life.

Too often, schools turn diligence into drudgery.

5 ways the modern workplace is changing

Peter Drucker has pointed out that our educational system is obsessed with people's weaknesses. Rather than making their powerful writing skills even stronger, children weak in geography waste time on remedial geography with few results.

The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work, and Workplace

Diligence that nurtures strength makes a difference. Indeed, a diligent commitment to improving their already powerful position is what makes the Japanese a formidable competitor in the electronic and automotive industries.

Similarly, the Japanese philosophy of perpetual quality improvement is a restless, but positive diligence. Searle knew they had something when they invented aspartame. It took years to learn, however, that aspartame was not an ulcer drug but the heart of the revolutionary sugar substitute NutraSweet. Perseverance presupposes confidence, and few companies can match Xerox for its sense of confidence and determination.

Xerox, which pioneered the photocopying business, lost important ground to the Japanese on price. Now, Xerox is reviving its copying business by focusing on the value added by advanced technologies and color copying. Focused leadership over time implies productive, useful perseverance. In the '80s, "cutting your losses" quickly was fashionable thinking. The initial costs of entry, especially for marketing, will be prohibitive.

Once the massive investment has been the contemporary workplace is defined by changing values, it becomes increasingly awkward to justify abandoning the business. Employees must be prepared for prolonged competitive horizons. The battles of entrenched foes, such as Pepsi and Coke, will be more the norm than the exception.

Because of our passion to make things simple, we err and also try to make them easy. As the great battlefield strategist von Clausewitz pointed out, the simple and the easy are not synonymous. Two weeks before the first issue, Neuharth reported that his employees "produced complete prototypes of the paper every day -- printed them, put them on trucks, dropped them at delivery points to pinpoint timing, then picked them up and burned them at the local dump to keep them out of the hands of the competition.

In no small measure, it stems from the remarkable discipline that went into building the paper. Discipline does not always imply following orders. Sometimes, it points in the opposite direction. Business Month named MCI one of the five best-managed companies in 1990.

Well, one of these days I'm going to find out who you are, and when I do, I'm going to fire you. They have to solve problems sensibly from the earliest days of their careers. Obviously, there are many ways to sort and define the five cornerstone values: It's hard to contain the focus to these attributes before other supporting values come into play.

Diligence presumes a sense of urgency, for example, because you can't be just busy; you must be busy in the context of time.

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Perseverance also requires judgment because no one would ever persist in a patently wrongheaded course. Although they may presume other values, the five cornerstone values are a credible starting point, and, I think, can be considered a priority list of the key workplace values. In my view, management now has no choice but to teach values. Business leaders in the United States have shunned talking about values, because they seem to suggest a religious or moral outlook.

This implication is not necessarily the case. Further, it's not possible to sustain industrial competitiveness without attention to them. Ask a Japanese CEO to define his primary job, and he's likely to tell you that his role is to "harmonize" values. It is to help employees to adjust to the ever-shifting structure of priorities and demands.

Values are what motivate and sustain behavior over the long run, and this perseverance is something the Japanese understand particularly well. Dilenschneider, author of A Briefing for Leaders: Communication As the Ultimate Exercise of Power from which this piece was excerpted.