Why Do Values Seem To Be Such Hard Work?

google

Leading by values, driven by values, the speed of trust, values education, living our values, smart trust, trust matters – these are all phrases (and book titles) that have been heard as much over the last 10-15 years at the tables of curriculum planners and education leaders as corporate honchos, HR Heads and even occasionally political strategists.

The principle has always, to me, appeared eminently logical and valuable – have children focus on acquiring strong values in their formative years and there’s an increased likelihood that they will grow up to be not just ‘educated’ but also good citizens – people who place a priority on practicing and living by positive and virtuous values, thereby making a more harmonious, positive and effective society.
(Note – this is very different to ideas of inculcating subservience, obedience and docility that have been barely veiled motivations of some of the arch-engineers of mass education over the last Century)

However, it’s also said that children learn from what we do more than what we say. Further, when there is inconsistency between the two, they will cease to believe our words and will even think less of us for our duplicity.  Generationally, there’s overwhelming evidence that this is where we are today – children and young people looking at adults, shaking their heads in horror and disinclined to hear too much more of our nonsense about trust, integrity and values.

Here, i’m not specifically talking of our destruction of the environment or crass economic policies – both of which ride a short term gravy train, all to be paid for on the never never by future generations. Nor am I talking of venal politicians who can barely get words between their lips before they let the side down with blatant and stupid lies (in this day it takes about 30 seconds to prove they’re lying). Here, I want to talk about the impact when a beacon of light held up to show the way to a promised land proves to have been a false light, deceptive with smoke and mirrors to conceal its ugliness.

I’m talking about Google (the picture at the top of the article was probably a clue. Not only does the story of Google appear to be showing all the signs of a massive let down to younger generations. it’s even leaving an old codger like me with the bitterest of tastes in my mouth.

Google has been a story of phenomenal  exponential growth. There probably isn’t another company that’s had more written about it, in popular media and in books. And, for years, almost universally, what was written was about a company that was tearing up the old rule books about company culture, about how companies behave in their relationship with their own employees. Here was a company who very publicly declared a key part of their mission was “don’t be evil.”

Books about Google have proliferated, but somehow I only got around to reading one of the best known, “Work Rules,”  by Laszlo Buck a few months ago. That reading feels almost redundant now and saddening for all the energy that went in to extolling to the rest of the corporate world that if companies would just be true to their vision and values they too would attract and have the pick of the very best of talent (and therefore grow to be phenomenally successful). In barely 21 years this company that started out as a Stanford University project by two allegedly reclusive and shy students; Larry Page and Sergey Brin has grown to be a worldwide colossus employing over 110,000 people. many things that Google did culturally have been adopted by other companies and even the 20% projects idea (allowing employees to devote 20% of their time to a project that intrigues them away from their main work) has been adopted in many schools worldwide to facilitate creativity and project based learning.

So, what’s gone wrong at Google? Nothing at all, if the share price is the arbiter of good and bad. However, share prices and the maximisation of shareholder value are the currency of old-school companies, not the new youngbloods, like Google. However, here’s just some of the evidence for the prosecution;

  1. A ‘Censored search engine’ being developed on behalf of the Chinese Government:
    In late 2018 there were reports that after condemnation and bad feeling from employees within the company, and others outside, Google had stopped work on the project Dragonfly. To many it was shocking that they would even consider being part of such a project when their previous message to the world had always been about the power of the internet to give people free access to information.
    However, even in 2019, there have been strong suspicions that work on this project is still ongoing in secret:
    The Intercept – Ongoing Project Dragonfly
  2. Google Found to be Providing Funding to Climate Denier Organisations
    Evidence emerged in 2019 of money from Google going to organisations that included those who lobbied most effectively to encourage President Donald Trump to leave the Paris Climate Agreement. Again, to many Google employees with strong science backgrounds this is shocking and alarming, but especially disturbing in the clandestine way it’s been done:
    Salon – Report Reveals How Internet Giant Funds Climate Villains
  3. Google’s Willingness to Work Closely With the Trump Government on Border Agency Cloud and Other Projects
    Tech employees and their Californian neighbours tend to lean towards Democrat politics and for many of them this has driven their decisions to take their technical knowledge and skills to Silicon Valley rather than pursuing the big mega bonuses in the New York financial markets.
    Also, a high proportion of the employees are first or second generation immigrants themselves, so are disturbed and troubled by the Trump government’s treatment of immigrants:
    The Verge – Google Employees Refuse to Be Complicit in Border Agency Cloud Contract
    (Article also references another controversy related to a government contract for drone footage related software)
  4. Google Using Its Size and Power to Stifle Competition, Control Search and Drive Revenues – Being Evil
    The Federalist – Why Big Tech Companies Can’t Stop Being Evil

  5. Google’s Increasingly Confrontational Position With Dissenting Voices:
    Fast Company – Fired Google Employees Cite ‘Don’t Be Evil’
    The sort of dispute referred to in this article might seem humdrum and commonplace in so many other company environments. However, it’s the massive changes in a culture that was held up as a model for future business that has shocked many.
    This case has also highlighted what are perceived to be unfair and unreasonable ways to exploit casual and contract labour outside the company.
  6. Google Siding With the Big Bankers in Financial Markets
    The blockchain, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have partly come into existence as a backlash against the abuses of power and manipulations of the big banks. So, it doesn’t please many people to see Google siding with the big bankers to develop products and services that may undermine the development of unregulated crypto markets that have the potential to give citizens privacy and power over their own money, spending etc.
    Forbes – Perhaps Google Will Kill Bitcoin After All
  7. Google Changing the Rules Unilaterally
    One aspect of Google’s ‘community’ oriented culture was the infamous town hall meetings where every employee could attend in person or electronically and put any questions to the founders and senior officials.
    In Work Rules Buck talks openly about how this wasn’t always comfortable, but that it was a critical and vital part of the company’s culture. He even went as far as to title the second chapter – ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ The subtitle  – If you give people freedom, they will amaze you.). The subtitle of the sixth chapter was – ‘Take power from your managers and trust your people to run things.’

 

In the book he cites examples of where Sergey and Larry took very personal interest in preserving and building up these cultural aspects of the organisation and how it created a strong message that Google was the place to work for the most free-thinking, creative and talented programmers and computer scientists. It’s surely not a coincidence that Larry and Sergey announced they would be standing down from their executive roles in the companies (including the parent company Alphabet). They announced this in an open letter to all employees:
Blog – Google – A Letter From Larry and Sergey

The final word on Google today sums up the current situation, from a University Professor of Innovation:
Medium – Suddenly, at Google, it’s Get on the Programme or Get Out

Where does all this leave us as far as values are concerned. Should we continue to give such a high priority to values in education – both as guide rails for how we run our schools and what we expect our pupils to imbibe, practice and make their own. Yes, in fact, I believe that failures like this just reinforce that we need to give even more importance to values.

We need to be able to have open, transparent dialogue about what happens when values meet challenging and ambiguous situations. As the children in school become older and more mature, so it’s vital that we expose them to debate and discussion around the fact that values are nothing except when they are tested, challenged and that when truly and fervently held they actually do not fall and crumble under the weight of pragmatic flimflam, but are instead strengthened like steel cast in the fire.

Values are not just marketing tools, or nice words to adorn the walls. They have to burn at the very core of individuals and organisations. At times they must be defended and protected. So, for example, if institutional investors are going to be one-dimensional stakeholders ready to push for values to be jettisoned in the pursuit of more profit, then company founders should have the courage to grow slower and refuse to take the institutional money.

And the same for individuals. The person who can be tempted to cast aside flimsily held values will be hollow at the core, susceptible to vulnerabilities and destined to fail to be all that he/ she can be.

 

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