Lucy Adams
October 2, 2019
Reading time: 10 minutes
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I once spent six months working on a new set of values for my company. It was great fun. We held workshops with tons of employees involving huge quantities of yellow stickies. When we’d come up with our magic four values … (I can’t actually remember what they were now but something involving ‘innovation’ and ‘customer focus’, I think) – we then worked through the required behaviours. The values were then launched in grand style to all of our people at conferences and workshops. We even had a film made which was really good and made a few of us cry. Finally, we then developed cascade packs for managers – to help ‘bring them to life’ for the people who weren’t invited to the conferences (probably because they were focusing on the actual customer at the time!)

I have since witnessed or been involved in countless other similar exercises. Some with slightly less investment. Most with a lot less enjoyment. And none of them seeming to make a huge amount of difference.

I’d like to suggest that corporate values have had their day and we need something fresh.

There are three problems with corporate values

  1. We are confused about what values are
  2. We assume that we can impose these values onto other people
  3. Our values tend to be the same as everyone else’s
  4. Values confusion

Should our values reflect the reality of working in our company today, or should they be aspirational? We are lectured about the need for authentic values, but they might not be as inspiring if our chosen values were ‘pretty average, tend to be old-fashioned and a bit boring’. It amazes me how many companies seem to pick a value out of the ether that they like the look of or think they ought to have a bit more of – and simply say, ‘this is now us’!

Secondly, values statements would be better to describe a set of beliefs or principles that shape our behaviour. Instead, most values statements are descriptions of the kinds of behaviour we want to see (teamwork, accountability, creativity, excellence, etc). I’m not sure any company can truthfully say that they always adhere to these behaviours. Business, like life, is filled with complexities and different contexts. Can we honestly say that we can describe how our company will and should act in every given situation? For example;

The value Simplicity.  Is simplicity always a good thing? Aren’t some things necessarily complex? Simplicity for whom? If it’s for our customers, then might that require our backend systems to become much more complex?

Or what about Passion? Can we really be passionate about everything? Wouldn’t that get a bit exhausting? Or even annoying?!

  1. We impose these values

One of the perpetual dilemmas for HR and leaders alike is how to bring the ‘values to life’. Here we take our four or five words or phrases and try and get our employees to remember them, understand them and behave in alignment with them.

I’ve always felt there was something inherently arrogant in a company ‘providing’ values to their employees. Almost as if the leaders feel they have the monopoly on principled behaviour but that their employees need to be fed them and have them explained.

Sadly we often end up settling for getting employees just to remember them. After all, it’s easier to give out a mug than change someone’s behavioural patterns, isn’t it?!

  1. Finally, values statements tend to be vanilla

Values statements have become so predictable that they are almost a parody of themselves! You only have to have a look at the values belonging to the FTSE 100 or the Fortune 500 in which ‘Integrity’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Customer-centricity’ appear multiple times. Aren’t these values just hygiene factors? Wouldn’t you expect every company to have integrity? Instead of differentiating us, our vanilla values reinforce just how similar we are to every other corporate.

So, what’s the alternative to Values Statements?

What we need instead, in my opinion, are two things; a focus on being a decent human being and secondly, a drive to create a differentiated employee experience.

  1. What if we just got rid of our cliched, banal, and pompous values statements and instead had a mantra that ‘we always try and behave like decent human beings’. Wouldn’t this be a ‘values catch-all’ (respect, integrity, inclusivity, trust, compassion, teamwork, etc)? Wouldn’t everyone immediately know what it meant without the need of behavioural indicators?
  2. To create a differentiated culture, we need to focus on the experiences that we want our people to have – how we want them to feel. And we can ensure that these experiences are relevant to our company, are aligned with our brand and are in support of the business ambitions we are laying out.

So, you might want a high-energy experience? Or an experience where people feel free to do their best work? Or an experience that is warm and welcoming? You can shape this by getting creative with your policies and processes, through the physical environment that you provide, through the tools and equipment they get to use, through the speed and ways you make decisions, and through the way that you lead.

So, like many other employment concepts that sprung up in the 80’s and 90’s, corporate value statements seem increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant. Maybe it’s time we took the posters off the wall and went for something different?

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