The Problem With Company Values

I once worked for a business that liked to get together at off-sites, sometimes over a day or two to agree the values of the organisation. Hours spent debating, arguing, flipcharting and then coming out with what I often thought sounded like gimmicky slogans and buzzwords:

'Delight our customers', 'Be a good citizen', 'Respect everyone', 'Work with integrity', 'Dare to be different', 'Accountability', 'Never blame', 'Deliver exceptional service' get the picture! Often, it feels like these are compulsory along with the mission statements, strategic plans and long-term goals we are also putting together.

But what I often thought strange was that the values were almost never mentioned when it counted: when a big mistake had been made, when a tough decision needed to be taken or when we were up against it! When it came to anything with a degree of risk or consequence no-one was repeating the values we had agreed, no-one was going round the table to see if the course of action we were about to take was 'aligned to our values'. So, the values sound good when life is going well - they are great for PR, they look lovely on the website and they make us sound awfully grown-up.

Nowadays I work with organisations of all shapes and sizes to help them improve performance and again the values are NEVER mentioned and rarely considered in any of the tough conversations I am having, witnessing or hearing about. So if we are gong to bring them to life then we need to see and hear them taken into account on an everyday basis:

  • In team meetings: 'what would our values tell us to do'?
  • In our behavioural frameworks/guides: rather than just dry, descriptive language we need to talk in see/hear language to give real-life examples of what good and not-so-good looks like when behaving in line with values
  • In our hiring decisions when we decide we 'like' people but are not sure of how they would fit with our values
  • Regularly checking-in with our people to understand how well they think the organisation fares in its dealings with people internally/externally
  • Reflecting on how we treat our customers and suppliers

And while I'm on values - if the opposite of what you promote as a value sounds odd - then does it really need pulling out as one of your key values?! For example why say you are Customer-Focused because you wouldn't not be would you. Or 'Drive for Results' - the opposite would be to try and make losses! Does it really need saying?