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Responsible leadership

March, 24th, 2010

Jan U. Hagen

What happened to the value discussion? - Interview with Jan U. Hagen

Jan U. Hagen is head of Financial Services at ESMT Customized Solutions and author of a number of publications on finance and banking, more recently on the financial crisis and the behavior of those involved. With these concerns in mind, we would like to bring up the question of what happened to the values so vehemently called for at the peak of the financial crisis. And which values did  we actually mean?

ESMT: At the height of the economic crisis in 2009, we heard and read a lot about values, mostly about their absence and the need for their re-establishment. Yet, what these values precisely were never became entirely clear; rather it seemed that after a time of supposedly no values, we suddenly again simply needed some values. Do you think that was the case? Had we lived without values during the past years?

Jan U. Hagen: No, despite all the previous noise, we have never lived without values. Values might get watered down, confused or corrupted, but we usually know exactly what is right and what is wrong.

ESMT: The question which also struck us was whose values we were actually supposed to revitalize and follow. If we are living in a global world, our value system needs to be quite far-reaching, doesn’t it?

Jan U. Hagen: We do live in a globally integrated world. Taking the corporate world, we see that companies will definitely have to open up to different cultures. However, in general, values are closely linked to regions and their history. To try and propagate global values would be absurd. Companies have to establish their set of values and see that their employees worldwide can identify with them. Ideally, these have to be closely linked to the business itself. Traditional Swiss private banks, for instance, would be ill-advised not to emphasize trust. Younger companies like Apple and Google will need to stress openness and individuality. What counts is a common understanding within the company that goes beyond the maximization of individual pay.

ESMT: Still, we have had the quest for values. Let’s assume this is a legitimate cultural expression. Could it be that we were looking for a value revival but did not find the substance anymore as if the values which were around had become obsolete?

Jan U. Hagen: If you go back in history you will always find claims that values are not what they used to be. Which is not to say, ah well, it’s one of those times again. But open societies ensure the necessary adjustments of our value system to the world in which we live.

ESMT: Are we going to use the Stoxx Europe Christian Index which comprises 533 European companies as a guideline for that?

Jan U. Hagen: I hope not. Given our recent disillusionment, who knows the true intentions of self-proclaimed watchdogs? As in the past, companies with a clear set of values tend to enjoy long-term performance without entering a club of faith or needing an index to tell them they are morally good.

ESMT: Still it would be helpful to have more stable role models, wouldn’t it? Positive role models with a reliable long-term factor, for example.

Jan U. Hagen: Perhaps. For better or worse we have to look towards ourselves, and as far as we have family, try our best as role models there. Even if we are currently at a loss to identify the values which bind our ethnic or multi-ethnic group, we are pretty certain when we see misbehavior. That’s where we have to start. If being lied to makes us unhappy, we can be pretty sure that truthfulness is dear to us. If we don’t like being cheated, we are clearly fond of honesty, etc. This means starting with our own value system rather than pointing at the lack of it in others.

ESMT: Thank you for this interview.