Values: Does Your Rubber Meet the Road?

When I started this blog post, I went to do some informal research to make a point, and was disappointed when I didn’t find what I expected. I had it in my head that if I visited 10 company websites, that about three or four in five would, somewhere, list their company values. After visiting seven sites, I only found one that specifically stated their organizational values. There were a couple of others that pointed to what are likely their values, and four that made no mention of them whatsoever. Then I gave up. The trend, it seems, has passed me by; organizations are losing interest in specifying and communicating their values. [Sigh.]

This really shouldn’t surprise me. I haven’t looked at it rigorously, but my causal observation is that there is very little relationship between how an organization communicates its values (if it does) and whether or not those show up in the culture. I’ve worked with organizations with really great cultures (measured by growth, retention, satisfaction) that pay little to no attention to their core values at all. On the other hand, there are organizations that put great thought into them, spend good money hiring people to help communicate them, and yet have slow growth, high turnover, and unhappy people. If it’s a coin toss as to whether a focus on the organization’s values will make a real difference in measures of a strong culture, frankly, why bother?

But it isn’t a coin toss. It only looks that way because, once an organization identifies their values, the trick is to implement practices and behaviors that are consistent with those values. The step that organizations tend to miss is that, once they identify the kind of place they would like to be and the ways of being that they’d like to emphasize, is to then identify two things. First, what are the core behaviors and results that would demonstrate those values? Second, what are the behaviors and results that would be inconsistent with those values? And this can be a painful process for any organization, even ones with great cultures. That’s because any organizations that’s growing in some way, whether it be into a new market, launching new products, or targeting a new customer base will locate places where practice doesn’t match perfectly with vision. It is isn’t comfortable to shine a light on those places, but that’s what real values work does. The great thing about it is that, if an organization’s leaders have the courage and accountability to face those things, they’ll now be able to take action on aligning practice with vision where it has gone off. And that’s very powerful.

Values aren’t a magic pill, and where they fail is when they are treated that way. When initiatives fail, it was usually because leaders hoped that the value statements along would motivate and inspire people. Where they succeed is when leadership does the work to bring performance – starting with their own – into line with the vision those values represent. Until they’re willing to do that, values initiatives are likely to become just another “flavor of the week.”