I am sure you have seen those words on the walls of the office or in your on-boarding materials: your company values. You read them once or twice, understand what they mean, and then never reference them again. According to Patrick Lencioni, "Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones." Core values should be authentic, simple definitions that are easy to understand and actionable to their day-to-day work environment.
Do you believe your values guide all company actions?
I recently did an assessment of a new client's company culture. I met with several employees, and one of the questions I asked them was, “What are your company's core values? Can you describe them to me?” There were a lot of "umms" and pauses. Then a few would say, “respect, trust and great customer service.”
They would usually get one or two of their values right, but the next questions I asked left them silent: “Aren't respect, trust, and customer service, values that every company should have as a base bar of running a business? Do you believe that your competitors lack respect, trust, and great customer service in their organization? What values make you different from your competitors?” This made the employees think about what makes their culture special — not just the generic words on the walls.
Unfortunately, core values today are so generic that they actually are just that: words on a wall. In fact, 80 percent of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly — values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct (Harvard Business Review).
Here are the five reasons why most company values suck:
1. No one knows them – If no one knows them, then they aren’t really your values. If you ask someone to describe their personal values, you will find that they can describe those with no hesitation. Ultimately, you want your company values to align with the values of your employees in order to achieve the kind of culture you want.
2. They don't have edge - Have you ever heard the phrase, “motherhood and apple pie”? If you haven’t, it's a way of saying “plain” or “feel-good.” Most organizations have "motherhood and apple pie" values - they're plain and uninspiring - so you must focus on identifying what core values give your organization that edge over others. For example, at Think Shift one of our core values is to “call each other up, not out.” As a company, we just don’t do our individual work and go home: there is a part of “teamwork” that asks us to hold each other accountable in a compassionate way.
3. They are not modeled by leadership – I find this point obvious, but often times it's one that is most overlooked. The leader of the organization needs to not only live out these values, but talk about them at every level of the company. Have you ever played the game follow the leader? Think of your values as those actions you want your employees to replicate. When you’re not living out those values, they are copying whatever other behaviors you have shown them.
4. They don't speak to what makes your culture special – If your employees don’t know your values, then they're not speaking to what makes your culture special. Take the time to speak to employees and ask them what they believe the company values should be, or ask them to describe what the existing values mean to them. You will get a clear understanding of whether they speak to your culture or not.
5. They don't drive behavior – Your values need to drive behaviors. I see a lot of companies with the core value, “Exceptional Customer Service.” So naturally, you would assume the employees are friendly, outgoing, helpful, eager, etc. Well, when you walk into the organization, you might walk past the sales team and see those behaviors, but the engineers making the product might not be super outgoing or eager to engage in a conversation with you. This is not saying that the engineers are wrong, but rather that an organization needs to be mindful that these values must serve the people in the organization, not what the customer wants to see. When you define values that are specific to your organization, naturally there will be behaviors that every employee can embody.
Once you have values that can be truly lived out, you will see a natural shift in your culture, and people will hold each other accountable to those values. Behaviors will start to shift, and sometimes you will see individuals start to self-select and move on to a different company. Defining your core values and behaviors that will support them will, in turn, help define your culture.
At Think Shift, we help companies identify specific core values and behaviors as part of our culture engagements. We push leadership to describe what makes their company unique and how leadership can then drive those values.
So ask yourself: Do your values suck? Get in touch with us to learn how they can be improved to drive company actions at firstname.lastname@example.org.