When leaders establish team values, they intend to set a standard that promotes healthy work culture and high-level performance. All good intentions.
But when these values are nothing more than buzzwords that get repeated every few months, team environments can turn destructive.
Why Establish Values At All?
In his article in the Harvard Business Review, executive team development expert Patrick M. Lencioni cites the case of Enron Corporation, an energy corporation that infamously filed for bankruptcy after committing accounting fraud. Their values, which were painted on the wall and printed in their annual reports, read: Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence.
The moral of the story: Values are only meaningful when they are practiced.
Lencioni refers to the obsession with values as a “fad” that began in 1994 when Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published the book Built to Last. The book urged executives to dedicate intense, off-site meetings to cooking up core values. To this day, the majority of corporations trumpet their values in their marketing, trying everything they can to show potential consumers that their company is one of the good ones. But if the values are hollow, the public will quickly see through them.
When approached with intention and discipline, however, establishing and living by values can do great things for a company. For example, values can:
- Set a company apart from competitors
- Serve as a motivator for team members and leaders to uplevel performance
- Remind people to behave in a way that promotes a healthy team culture
The Consequences of Core Values
According to Lencioni, “an organization considering a values initiative must first come to terms with the fact that, when properly practiced, values inflict pain.” This statement feels very harsh, but consider these consequences of establishing core values:
- They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom
- They leave leaders vulnerable to criticism
- They constrain the behavior of employees
- They require constant vigilance
If you are committed to creating and implementing meaningful core values, you’ll first want to understand how core values differ from other types of values such as aspirational, permission-to-play, and accidental values.
Aspirational values are principles a company needs but currently lacks. Labeling these as core values can confuse employees and undermine the company’s credibility.
Permission-to-play values are the minimum behavioral and social standards required of any employee, and should not be confused with core values.
Accidental values arise unintentionally based on employees’ common interests or personalities. If these values are perceived as core values, they may unnecessarily exclude great workers.
What Core Values Are and How to Make Them Meaningful
Core values are a company’s deeply ingrained principles that run through all facets of the organization. These values, which often reflect the values of the company’s founders, are not up for compromise and must be maintained at all costs.
On top of understanding the different types of values, these three suggestions will help you establish meaningful core values:
- Be aggressively authentic: Research by Peter H. Kim, Ph.D. suggests that people can easily sense inauthenticity, and when they perceive inauthenticity from leaders, they are less likely to trust them. Ask yourself: Do my company’s values read like a cookie-cutter motivational poster? If so, it runs the risk of disappearing into the competitive landscape. Lencioni cites the example of Siebel Systems, whose values are strict but meaningful. Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, Siebel resists a “cushy” culture by making professionalism its top value. Even more importantly, it implements its values in day-to-day functioning: employees are not allowed to eat at their desks and can only decorate workspaces with a few personal photographs. While this culture may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Siebel finds that employees are far clearer on expectations, which can foster employee satisfaction and retention.
- Own the process: The first mistake many organizations make when creating core values is handing off the task to the human resource department. The best values, according to Lencioni, are led by a small team that includes the CEO, any founders who are still involved, and some key employees. And these employees may exemplify what the values should be. The pharmaceutical company MedPointe, for example, based its values on select employees whom leaders felt embodied the characteristics they would like replicated throughout the company’s culture. Another essential element in owning the process is understanding that it takes time. Leaders can benefit from reserving multiple values-writing sessions to allow time and space to process ideas.
- Weave core values into everything: Creating core values is not a one-and-done task; it is an indefinite commitment that needs regular attention. It may sound taxing, but when your core values are woven into every aspect of your organization, they become easier to maintain. Consider weaving your core values into hiring methods, performance management systems, criteria for promotions and rewards, even dismissal policies. In the hiring process, ask candidates to share past experiences based on your company’s values. For example, if one of your company’s values is independence, ask candidates to share a time when they had to solve a problem with minimal supervision. Existing employees need to be consistently reminded of the company’s values. Research shows that repetition helps the human brain internalize beliefs, so when leaders echo company values during each meeting or display them on office walls and common areas, it helps the concepts sink in (without having to constantly nag employees).
With a deeper understanding of how core values are defined and how successful companies implement them in day-to-day functioning, leaders can create them in a meaningful way that not only enhances the company’s culture but also defines its success.