After over 30 years of working with organizations globally, I can confidently state that most companies don’t fully understand and embrace organizational values. Further, those that do have a competitive edge.
You only have to read the headlines to see abuses of power and corporate malfeasance: Wells Fargo, Amazon, NBC, Uber, United and The Weinstein Company, among others. Most of these companies say the right things. Unfortunately, they fail to act accordingly.
Take Wells Fargo. One of their values reads: “What’s right for customers. We place customers at the center of everything we do. We want to exceed customer expectations and build relationships that last a lifetime.”
Yet, they’ve often done the opposite. Story after story documents how Wells Fargo has systematically betrayed their customers’ trust. This is no way to build relationships that last a lifetime.
Not all value breeches are sensational enough to make headlines. But, make no mistake, they are equally damaging. Everyday violations eat away at morale, decimate employee engagement, and undermine your brand and bottom line.
I don’t think most corporations intend for this to happen. I believe they simply don’t know how to reinforce values while negotiating complex day-to-day demands.
So, what to do? First, let’s make sure we have a shared definition of “corporate values.” Here are two I like:
The first comes from BusinessDictionary.com: “The operating philosophies or principles that guide an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with its customers, partners, and shareholders.”
The second comes from a pioneer in the field of organizational development, Edgar Schein: “The rules of behavior. It is how the members represent the organization both to themselves and to others. This is often expressed in official philosophies and public statements of identity. It can sometimes be a projection for the future, of what the members hope to become.”
Reading these, it’s not hard to imagine how values might be applied to guide and influence nearly every aspect of organizational life.
Yet, more often than not, values are relegated to a page on a website or in a binder. In fact, most leaders and employees can’t even recite their organizational values, so it’s no mystery they don’t apply them. This is a huge missed opportunity.
Is your company walking the talk? This is a question that needs to be asked regularly. Reflection is an essential precursor to calibration, learning and growth.
To assess your current state of effectiveness, ask yourself if any of these statements are true for you or your organization:
- You have difficulty recalling your organizational values.
- You feel drained, unmotivated or burned out.
- You have difficulty meeting objectives or feel unfulfilled even when you do.
- You find yourself procrastinating.
- You feel misunderstood, disempowered or resentful at work.
- The organizational strategy is unclear.
- Trust in leadership is low.
- Decision-making processes are opaque and/or decisions don’t stick.
- Morale, engagement and/or productivity are low.
- The board or leaders think the values don’t apply to them.
- People are promoted or rewarded even when behaviors contradict values.
- Inappropriate (bad) behaviors are not addressed effectively.
- Employees tend to keep their personal and work lives separate.
If a few or more of these statements are true, you probably have a values gap. Either your organization isn’t living its values, or your personal values aren’t aligned with your organization.
A commitment to organizational values and personal alignment with said values can be a huge business differentiator.
You can draw a straight line from values to performance. When employees see leaders acting with integrity, trust in leadership strengthens. This improves morale, which correlates with employee engagement. Engagement generates productivity and ultimately drives strategy. In addition, values-driven leaders shape culture by creating a critical mass. Never forget that culture eats strategy for lunch.
Here’s how great companies implement values:
Values guard culture. Values should be visible in how you treat each other internally, and how you engage with everyone in your extended community. Every relationship matters and builds (or undermines) a values-driven culture. This is especially true for leaders. They are the most important stewards of culture and must embody the values in everything they do or say. Also, consider whether your organizational structure and employee development initiatives support your stated values.
Values are embedded and celebrated. Every day, values need to be called out, modeled, discussed and celebrated from the top down. For example, choose an employee of the month for being the best role model of values. Informal reinforcements might look like taking a great employee to lunch or showing public appreciation.
Values are a part of all performance discussions. Too often, we evaluate and reward employees for business deliverables without consideration of values. This communicates that values don’t matter, especially if the same person has exhibited poor behavior. Instead, send a message that values do matter by collecting feedback through 360 evaluations, upward appraisals and customer satisfaction surveys.
Values guide decision making. Revisit values at the start of any decision-making process. Later, use them to gauge the effectiveness of your decision-making process and to ensure that decisions are congruent with your stated ideals.
Values are user-friendly. One organization I worked with had 10 values and 2-3 behaviors for each value. The consequence was no one remembered them. We recommend four values with associated behaviors to ensure that they are succinct and memorable.
Values are revisited. Revisit, edit and recommit to your values annually. As companies change, it is essential to ensure that you are still focused on the right ideals and behaviors.
The word “value” is defined as the importance, regard or worth that something is believed to deserve. If you make a point to genuinely embody your organizational values by embedding them in all your processes and discussions, then surely you will be telling everyone that they truly matter, and your company will reap the benefits of setting clear expectations in an environment where people are held accountable.
In other words, if you want your values to matter, you need to keep them front and center.
This article was first published at Forbes.com (April 2018).