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Busting the Core Values Myth

Too often, value statements are no more than vague ideals that are impossible to measure, and even harder to implement.

Value means putting your best foot forward

Millions of dollars and an unimaginable number of employee hours have been wasted on the hypocrisy of “core value statements.” Consultants and company leaders form committees and convene at off-site meetings to carefully craft the exact words that will be posted on their lobby wall or their website to describe their raison d’etre. After all, we’ve been taught to tell the world who we are and what’s important to us.

It isn’t hard to guess what words will show up in a typical company values statement; something about “integrity” will no doubt be included, as well as “respecting each other”, “being responsible”, and “honest communication.”

Guess what? It’s all a sham.

Enron published its four values in its annual report: “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence.” Tyco’s governance credo on its website states that “good governance ultimately depends on the quality of its leadership, and it is committed to recruiting and retaining directors and officers of proven leadership and personal integrity.”

We all know the reality in those two situations.

It’s not that those aspirations aren’t admirable. The real problem is two-fold:

  1. Too often, companies fail to translate those lofty words into what an individual is actually expected to do on a day-to-day basis. Without that link to specific actions and behaviors, it’s impossible to actually hold people accountable to the values they are supposed to be demonstrating.
  2. Companies do not measure behavior or give it the same weight and level of importance as they do for more objective performance criteria.

One example of a company with real values is Zappos, the highly successful online retailer. A core value at Zappos is to “Deliver WOW through service”. The company goes on to specifically define that phrase:

To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver.”

They also get even more specific:

“Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don’t offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers).”

It’s not hard to envision how Zappos might track and hold employees accountable for the WOW service they’ve delivered and the number of customers they’ve surprised and delighted.

With this lesson in mind, then, here are eight steps you can take to start making your own value statements more real, actionable, and measurable.

  1. Review your corporate values and ask this question: “How would I know if an employee was living this value or not? What would I observe, hear, or notice?”
  2. Describe what a low score on each of your values would look like.
  3. Ask 10 people in your organization the same two questions above for each of your values and see how similar (or dissimilar) their answers are.
  4. Do you see your company leaders demonstrating your values through their actions every day? (If not, don’t expect your employees to do so either.)
  5. Hold a brainstorming session and ask attendees to make a list of actions that they feel would demonstrate the values of your organization (i.e., “respect each other” could mean “come to meetings on time”, “answer internal emails within 24 hours”, “listen without interrupting,” etc.).
  6. Make a list of realistic ways that your values can be measured and incorporated into your performance-appraisal process. Remember, it isn’t effective to measure job performance without also measuring behavior (unfortunately, this famous maxim often holds true: “People get hired for what they can do, and fired for who they are.”).
  7. Ask some people outside your organization if they would be able to identify your company by its unique value statements. For example, would you recognize that the value of using only “Vermont dairy products” is Ben & Jerry’s? Or that an experience that “enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests” is the Ritz-Carlton?

Don’t let your company fall prey to the sham and hypocrisy of most corporate value statements. Make your values meaningful. Make them an important lighthouse to guide actual behavior. Only then will you be positioned to reap the benefits and be recognized for practicing what you preach.



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  • 2 comments so far

    • Bud Grant


      Jane, The road map above should be in every leaders arsenal of tools he or she uses to guide either a high performing team or an entire organization. No doubt all of us could look back in our careers and identify a situation where these steps would have been useful. There are times however that problem identification and understanding are not enough. I believe that the concept of "logical consequence" should also be employed. The individual has the right to clearly understand the consequences should behavior not change. That may be the toughest part of the conversation. Keep up the good work, your insight is most valuable.

    • Valerie Iravani


      Jane, great information. I've used this same process for years. I even created a one-page agenda to document the conversation for myself - and to put in employee files if need be. The agenda keeps me on track, no matter how I am feeling. The one reframe that has helped me to take immediate action on these difficult conversations is this: Everyone is on a journey of experience. We all make choices that take us on this experience - for our growth, for our self-awareness and development, and to learn about the world around us in all of its richness. Why would I deny this experience to another person by avoiding something that feels uncomfortable? I cannot paint the other person with my own emotional brush. I do not know how they will react or feel. However, the situation needs to be addressed, and if I don't do it, who will? So do not deny the other person this experience - no matter what they may or may not feel. This conversation may be the impetus they need to make significant changes in their own understanding of themselves. I hate feeling all 'out of whack' because I don't want to 'hurt' someone's feelings or look them in the eye and tell them they are doing something unacceptable - because I assume they will not accept the comments I will make. I do feel relieved, better, and like I can move forward toward improving the situation once the discussion is out in the open and taking place. Just breathe through it and take action. I understand why it may seem hard, but I don't understand why we, as managers, fail to do it at all. Thanks for the post and I hope everyone who reads it will use it.


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