Why “Integrity” and “Customer Service” Shouldn’t be Your Core Values

Gordon Dmytriw

Think about your company’s core values — you probably have them prominently displayed in a number of places. They’re likely on your website, referenced in your on-boarding materials and hanging on a wall in your boardroom, lunchroom or lobby.

But for most organizations, that’s not enough. According to Gallup, just 27% of U.S. employees believe in their company’s values, and only 23% strongly agree that they can apply their company values to their everyday work.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the aspirational values leadership has for their company culture and the reality for front-line employees. That’s a problem, because having a strong organizational culture — one guided by a set of core values that are practiced by leaders, managers and employees — can be a key differentiator for sectors like agriculture that compete fiercely for talent.

The problem with core values

When assessing our clients’ work cultures, we typically ask leadership and employees to describe their company values. Across organizations and industries, these interviews often yield surprisingly similar results: a list of generic attributes like respect, honesty, integrity and customer service.

Here’s the problem: respect, honesty, integrity and customer service aren’t core values. They’re table stakes — attributes any and all successful companies should practice.

In The Advantage, author Patrick Lencioni suggests, “think of your core values as a few behavior traits that are inherent in the organization. They lie at the heart of the organization's identity, do not change over time and must already exist. In other words, they cannot be contrived.”

Unfortunately, many core value sets are so generic they feel contrived, and so they become merely words on a wall instead of being part of the lived experience of those who are meant to practice them.

Here are five signs that your core values need work:

  1. “If a tree falls in the forest…” – To analogize this philosophical conundrum, if no one really talks about the company’s values, do they really exist? If consistent conversations about the importance of shared values, what they really mean, how they connect to employees’ personal values, etc., are absent, don’t be fooled into believing the values you came up with at one off-site workshop a couple of years ago really matter.
  2. They don't have edge - "Motherhood and apple pie" value statements are those that are so diffuse and obvious they are meaningless. “Trust. Our word is our bond…”, “Honesty. We tell the truth…”, are just two examples. In the absence of such statements, perhaps we should believe that an organization actually values mistrust and dishonesty? For your values to be effective, strive to go beyond table stake-values and find ways to express key behaviors that have an edge — those that describe a position that might not work for other companies, but that will work for yours. For example, one of Google’s values (borrowed from McKinsey) is “the obligation to dissent.” One can imagine many organizations shying away from such stark language. Around Think Shift, we, like many companies, value transparency. We remind ourselves to say what we think, and when it is hard to have those conversations, to call people up rather than out. It’s a simple way to remind ourselves to stay in touch with our intentions and be compassionate when doing or saying a hard thing.
  3. They are not modeled by leadership – This point may sound obvious, but it's one that is most often overlooked. Leaders must live out their core values day in and day out and, as importantly, make it safe for subordinates to call them up when they fall short. Nothing is more powerful for instilling values than when leaders demonstrate vulnerability about a deficiency and express gratitude to those who help them see it. Think of the game follow-the-leader. Employees replicate the values and behaviors they see in their leaders. An empowered culture has empowering leaders, an innovative culture has innovative leaders and a cautious culture has risk-adverse leaders. Or, as this Sicilian proverb bluntly states, “the fish rots from the head down.”
  4. They don't speak to what makes your culture special – Differentiate between “foundational” and “authentic” values. Foundational values are those traditional ideas like honesty and integrity. We think of them as table stake values so fundamental they’re implied. Instead, we suggest choosing values that are authentic and perhaps even unique to your culture. To find these, take the time to speak to employees and ask them what they believe the company values are. One of the best ways to do this is to ask them to tell a story about the company they feel likely wouldn’t have happened somewhere else. You will very quickly uncover themes that point to what is true and authentic about your company’s values.
  5. They don’t drive behavior – To support your culture, core values must drive behaviors. This means they have to be specific, actionable, and something every employee can embody. Consider Southwest Airlines — instead of the generic “great customer service,” they promote a “Fun-LUVing attitude,” which is specific and easy for every employee to put into action in every circumstance (just look at how a gate attendant made a flight delay fun). When developing your values, be intentional about writing them down in such a way as to describe behaviors, rather than ideas.

Between strategy and results lies people behaving at work. An engaged workforce is potentially your most important differentiator, and certainly, your most significant competitive advantage. The values you choose to elevate and celebrate will become the backbone of your culture, providing support and incentive to give discretionary effort. So, don’t settle on “table stakes” values. Engage your entire company in the process of uncovering your unique organizational belief system — a set of convictions around which your tribal identity is developed and shared.

At Think Shift, we believe an organization’s culture is the biggest driver of their brand. Through our leadership and culture engagements, we help CEOs and other executives discover what makes their company unique and bring their brand to life.

Ready to re-evaluate your core values? Drop us a line.

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