Just about every company today aims to be “value-driven.” Executives are pushing their organizations to create grand statements, often known as “core values,” “guiding principles” or “aspirations.”
Designing these lofty declarations are a good idea. Examples abound of high-performing organizations that have replaced stifling rules and policies with fundamental values supporting the culture they desire.
Yet, many such exercises elicit snickers from the employees they are intended to inspire. Managers and front-line workers humor their bosses by placing their left hands over their hearts, raising their right hands, pledging commitment to the pretty words — and going back to work.
In one organization that went through a “value clarification,” the process became derisively known as “kidney stone management.” The employees’ attitude was: “It’s going to hurt for awhile, but this too shall pass.”
In 10 years of work with hundreds of organizations, I have observed two common problems in defining values: first in designing the statements, second, in putting them into action.
To start with, companies err by failing to boil their messages to a few core statements or words. Values statements become a laundry list pledging to be everything to everybody.
In one extreme case, a Canadian utility handed out pocket-sized folders to its thousands of employees listing the organization’s 36 values.
Anything beyond three to four core values are no values at all. As with so many issues of strategy and culture, executives need to set priorities about what’s really important to the organization. Core values are those few words or short statements that act as central “hooks” on which to hang the key behavioral guidelines that shape everyone’s actions.
An even bigger challenge arises after values have been articulated: how to instill them. Many executives make a mockery of the exercise because their actions aren’t connected with their words.
Peanuts creator Charles Schultz once observed: “There’s a big difference between a bumper sticker and a philosophy.” Some executives have created “bumper sticker values” that they negate through contradictory actions.
The president of a major retailing chain kept talking about trust and partnerships. At the same time, he expressed frustration that store managers weren’t “entrepreneurial enough” to keep merchandise that was mistakenly overshipped but not invoiced by suppliers. “After all,” he explained, “these companies are always jerking us around.”
In other cases, executives who declare teamwork to be a core value don’t recognize how their own failure to work as a team creates cynicism.
One group discovered that the sniping they did to each other, often led to whole departments sniping at each other. Factions would point accusing fingers when something went wrong, and erect walls around their turfs. Little wonder that cross-functional teams floundered.
Effective cultural change has, at its core, a simple definition of the beliefs that are to shape the organization’s character.
Then comes the hardest leadership test of all — consistently showing rather than just telling what the organization stands for.
Many executives have “done their values thing” and produced pretty parchment papers filled with inspiring words. However, many are frustrated because managers, supervisors and front line employees aren’t getting the message.
But people do get the executives’ message. They see it loud and clear.