I started to think about the difference between core values and corporate culture in the wake of the 2001 Enron crisis, which saw the energy company—named  "America's Most Innovative Company" by Fortune for six consecutive years, from 1996 to 2001—implode spectacularly, its share price having declined from a high of $90.75 to just $0.26.

In its annual report to shareholders, Enron listed four core values:

  • Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
  • Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
  • Excellence– We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.

But the reality of the corporate culture was quite different. In the wake of the company’s demise, interviews with employees made it clear that the working environment at Enron was driven by ego and greed.

Or, as research psychologist Paul T.P. Wong explained in this article, the company’s leadership behaved in ways diametrically opposed to pretty much every one of those values: “Enron’s senior management failed to maintain a relationship of openness and trust with employees. Staff members who questioned the wisdom of some of Enron’s decisions and practices were either ignored or silenced.

“Senior management cared more about self-enrichment than the needs of employees. They showed little regard for meaning and ethics beyond the bottom line. There is an absence of shared vision that transcends moneymaking. Enron’s deficiency in social-spiritual capital proved to be fatal.”

So, as the Journal of Values-Based Leadership explained in an article by academic David Burkus, “While the printed code of ethics described the company’s commitment to ‘conducting the business affairs of the companies in accordance with all applicable laws and in a moral and honest manner’ and espoused the virtues of integrity and respect as core values, the behaviors and attitudes of its people often stood on the opposing pole.”

One thing that became apparent in the wake of the crisis—as well as similar crisis in 2002 involving Worldcom and Tyco—was the massive chasm that exists between stated values and real-world culture in many high-flying organizations. The second thing that became apparent, based on the subsequent coverage, was that many employees understood the breadth and depth of that crisis long before it became apparent to the outside world.

It is helpful for communicators to understand the role that this chasm plays in corporate crises, because the vast majority of crises—certainly those crises that can do lasting damage to the organization—stem from cultural misalignment. Indeed, absent some level of cultural disfunction, most of what we think of as “crisis” either fades quickly or leaves no lasting damage.

I was reminded of all this a week ago, when a report by an independent panel convened by the Federal Aviation Administration found a "disconnect between Boeing's senior management and other members of the organization on safety culture."

We have devoted plenty of column inches at this site to aspects of the Boeing safety issues that have continued fo four years now, so this report is not particularly surprising.

According to the report, “Boeing’s SMS [safety management systems] documents do not effectively result in understanding by the average employee of their role in Boeing’s SMS.” Moreover, in interviews, employees expressed "distrust in the anonymity of the Speak Up program" that was intended as a cornerstone of the company’s stated commitment to safety. That distrust raised questions about "the effectiveness of this reporting program," the panel said.

Knowing this might have been helpful before the first Max 747 fell out of the sky. It’s certainly something the company should have wanted to understand for itself in the aftermath of that first disaster.

Like Enron, Boeing has corporate values. On its website, it promises: “In everything we do and in all aspects of our business, we will make safety our top priority, strive for first-time quality, hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards, and continue to support a sustainable future.”

It ought to be a relatively simple matter for communicators to figure out whether the organizations they represent are living up to these (or any) values. I would suggest that a simple three-question survey can identify whether an organization is headed for a damaging crisis.

First, “Do you understand our values?” This can help communicators understand whether most employees have received adequate information about the company’s stated values.

Second, “Do you believe the company management lives these values?” This can help communicators understand whether the company’s actions reflect these stated values, or whether they are regarded as mere puffery.

And third, “Do you personally feel empowered to make decisions based on these values?” This last question can help communicators understand whether people believe they would be rewarded or punished for acting on company values—and also for pointing out that others are not living up to those values.

Asking these questions broadly about corporate values—or specifically about topics like integrity or product safety or sustainability or diversity—is one to way to quickly establish any dissonance between stated principles and real-world culture. Because in our age of transparency, that dissonance is a harbinger of an inevitable crisis ahead.