Lucy Adams
October 2, 2019
Reading time: 18 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. We collated the outputs and presented them to the Exec team who then got really excited about the exercise and which turn of phrase would be ‘just right’. When we’d come up with our magic four (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. 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!)

Yes, a great few months and the company really didn’t skimp on the investment to make them perfect. But …. Was it a good use of our time and money? Now I am not so sure.

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.

The Rise and Fall of Corporate Values

It’s difficult to assess exactly when corporate values statements became fashionable, but I reckon that they surged in the 1990’s and by the new century you were seen as odd if you didn’t have yours splashed over your walls, mugs and lanyards. Of course, over the last few years we have seen them being discredited on numerous occasions. You just have to check out Enron’s, VW’s or BHS’s at the time of their respective scandals to know that a decent set of values was never a guarantee of corporate ethics. But I think the real problems are threefold;

  • We are confused about what values are
  • We assume that we can impose these values onto other people
  • They tend to be the same as everyone else’s

Values Confusion

I don’t think we’ve ever really got a handle on what values statements were about.

Firstly, should they reflect the reality of working in our company today, or should they be aspirational? We are lectured about the need for values-authenticity, 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’! I remember working with a major UK retail outfit and they had just launched a range of new values, in much the same way as they would launch a new clothing line. ‘This is what everyone will be wearing this Summer!’ or in their case ‘We are now innovative!’ I remember hearing some of the older retail assistants who had worked there for over 25 years grumbling about it and wondering why their loyalty, dedication and decency didn’t seem to be as popular anymore.

Secondly, should they describe a principle/belief or a behaviour? Shouldn’t our company values describe the former, a set of beliefs or principles that shape our behaviour? Conversely most values statements seem to be descriptions of the kinds of behaviour we want to see (teamwork, accountability, creativity, excellence, passion, etc) which would suggest we might have missed the point a bit?

Patrick Lencioni helpfully described four types of values:

Core values – the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions

Aspirational values – those that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks

Permission-to-play values – that simply reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee

Accidental values – that arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time

In Lencioni’s view, companies need to focus on the first, ‘core’ values, and ensure that these are both ‘aggressively authentic’ and applied to every action, if the values are to serve as a competitive advantage. Whilst I think this differentiation is useful, I am not convinced that any company can truthfully say that they adhere to these behaviours at all times? More importantly, 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? Doesn’t the volatility of our business worlds need us to reassess what ‘appropriate’ looks like on a fairly regular basis? 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?!

Or ‘Results-driven’. Isn’t this the value statement that got so many of us into trouble in the last global financial crisis? Which results? Short-term? Long-term? Sales or long-term customer loyalty? Sometimes, we have conflict between the different results we’re driving for.

I totally get that companies might want to sum up their behavioural intent with a few choice words or phrases, but does it really make sense?

Imposing Values

One of 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
  • 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 their employees need to be fed them and have them explained. Of course, sometimes companies involve loads of their people in helping to produce them. Brownie points for engagement, but in my experience these exercises are difficult to get right. Attempting to corral 10,000 individual belief systems and different experiences at work nearly always ends up with something too generic to create too much excitement.

We write out our behavioural statements so that no-one, especially Shirley in Procurement, is left in any doubt about ‘innovation’ means. We host workshops across our various teams and involve them in exercises that can feel a tad patronising. But we’re left worried that maybe Shirley in Procurement isn’t going to be any more innovative than she was beforehand.

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

Vanilla Values

Values statements have become so predictable that they are almost a parody of themselves! You only have to have a look at the FTSE 100 in which ‘Integrity’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Customer-centricity’ appear multiple times or the Fortune 500 where the values are ‘Integrity’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Excellence’ are shared by many of them. There’s nothing wrong with these values, but aren’t they just hygiene factors? Wouldn’t you expect every company to have integrity, to treat you with respect and to strive for excellence?  Instead of differentiating us, our vanilla values reinforce just how similar we are to every other corporate.

By the way, if you haven’t seen this brilliant video on the clichés involved in brand values – check it out!

So, what’s the alternative to Values Statements?

If you’re still reading, you would be forgiven for thinking that I must be a complete cynic and existing in some moralistic vacuum! Well, I’d like to think not, and I do believe that having a strong ethical core in business is actually a good thing. I just think there are different ways to achieve it and also to differentiate your own culture – without the ubiquitous values statement.

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.

Behave like a decent human being

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?

A Differentiated Employee Experience

To create a differentiated culture within your organisation, I suggest that you focus on the experiences that you want your people to have. The benefit of focusing on experiences is that you have to think about how people will feel, rather than how they will behave. If you create the right conditions, the right types of experiences, then you can influence how your people might feel. And you can ensure that these experiences are relevant to your company, are aligned with your brand and are in support of the business ambitions you 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 through 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 take decisions, through the way that you lead. If you’re interested in looking at how to create employee experiences in more detail maybe join us at a live webinar or check out our other blogs here

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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