Values Are Meaningless -- But They Don't Have To Be

I don’t know a single company that hasn’t articulated their values in some form or another. And I don’t know a single exercise that provokes more cynicism and eye-rolling than the articulation of company values.

It’s understandable. The all-too-common experience goes something like this: We do a brainstorming exercise. We do a narrowing exercise. We land on the things we always land on (Integrity! Fun! One team! Customer excellence!). We put them up on the wall. Maybe we’ll write a press release about it.

And nothing changes.

There’s an even worse possibility: The boss writes the values. Hands them down from on high. Puts them up on the wall.

And nothing changes.

Is it any wonder we’re cynical? Any wonder that, while 80% of employers think they are values-aligned with employees, only 53% of employees think they are?



Here is Truth #1: Values are meaningless. What matters is behavior. And the equation is simple: if your values match your behavior, you build trust; if they don’t, you lose trust.

Here is Truth #2: The only way to align values with behavior is to embed them into the systems, processes, and infrastructure of the organization.

What does that look like? Four steps.

First, it requires articulating the behaviors associated with each value. If one of your organizational values is customer service, what does that look like in practice? What are go/no-go behaviors? Is the customer always right, no matter the cost? What’s an example of a time we got this right? A time when we got it wrong? How can you tell if someone is delivering according to the expectations set by this value?

Second, once the behaviors get articulated, it’s time to build them into the systems. Use them in recruitment, in induction, in performance reviews, in bonus calculations. Set up rituals: reminders at the beginning of meetings, monthly discussions on where adhering to the values gets tricky. Don’t just leave them on the wall; bring them to life every day.

Third -- critically -- leaders must be relentless in holding themselves to account for living in the organization’s values. Every time a manager says, “We value transparency!” and then talks behind people’s backs, the message gets reinforced that you’re not serious about this stuff.

Finally, if you really want to build a team whose values match their behavior, you must be willing to be a hard-ass about it -- to the degree that someone’s consistent disregard for the values and their associated behaviors should be cause for dismissal.

But, Kaila, that’s way too harsh! I can’t require people to behave according to our values!

OK, then why do you have them? What is the point?

If people cannot be held to account for behaving according to the values, the values are meaningless.

If you only judge people on output, they learn that their behavior doesn’t matter -- the values are meaningless.

But if you have translated your values into clear behaviors, ensured they are built into the rituals, systems, and infrastructure of the organization, modeled them relentlessly yourself as a leader, held others to account… There is no ambiguity. The message becomes clear:

This is a place where we behave in alignment with what we say is important to us.

This is a place where we don’t just care about what we produce; we care about how we show up.

This is a place where we have taken meaningless values and turned them into something meaningful.

And nobody would roll their eyes at that.

1 comment about "Values Are Meaningless -- But They Don't Have To Be".
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  1. Brian Deffaa from LifeBridge Health, April 24, 2023 at 1:49 p.m.

    Getting an organization to act upon it's stated values is simultaneously one of the HARDEST and one of the most REWARDING things any organization can do.  From differentiating a product (Apple) or a service experience (Chick-fil-A) to creating a mission the entire organization can use a rally cry ("Care Bravely") - dividends are returned across the board.  From recruitment, retention and consideration to the stuff you decide doesn't fit - the benefits are knee-deep.

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