Leadership

Five signs your company values might be bullshit

Michel Hogan /

The combination of hubris and aspiration, liberally sprinkled with puffery make many value sets mosh pits of self-delusion.

So there’s every chance your company values are complete bullshit. And if they are, it’s a quick ride on the slip slide to cynicism and ridicule when actions reveal them to be naked as the proverbial emperor.

Here are five signs of bullshittery to watch out for.

1. If the acronym of your values is a word  they might be bullshit.

A perennial healthcare favourite uses the first letter of each value to spell “icare”, but they are far from alone turning their values into a handy mnemonic.

I’m not a fan of the approach and can’t think of a legitimate reason to tie yourself into a linguistic pretzel so your values can make a word. And sure, if you’re one of the very, very, very few for whom the values can make a word, go for it. For everyone else, it’s a red warning light.

True values aren’t hard to remember, they resonate, and they don’t need to make a word because they’re part of how you do things every day.

2. If your values are taken from the top 10 list of usual suspects  they might be bullshit.

Excellence, accountability, respect, innovation, teamwork, integrity – we can almost recite them off by heart. Now if one or more of them truly inform your intention and how you go about your everyday unheroic work, and sometimes heroic work, go for it.

But if you’re choosing them because they present a shiny facade, or to appear as the organisational equivalent of a person everyone likes and universally describes as a ‘good person’, then don’t. Because all values have a dark side. Excellence can flip into an inability to finish things, accountability turns into a blame-fest and innovation an excuse to blow stuff up.

So if good values can go bad you might as well spend a bit of time and go with what’s true.

3. If your values are printed on the back of your identity badge, on a poster on the wall or on your website  they might be bullshit.

I know plastering them on anything and everything that moves can seem like a good idea everyone does it. However, I’ve noticed a phenomenon over the years – an inverse relationship between how prominently values are displayed and how true they are. And sure it’s anecdotal at best, but you’ve probably encountered the same thing.

So here’s an idea. Don’t print them on anything. Instead, make them a daily part of the conversation about your work. Not just once a year, all the time.

Learn why you should take your values off your web site. Click here.

4. If the only place your values show up in conversation is the annual staff offsite they might be bullshit.

If you’re not talking about your values they may as well be that poster on the wall.

Talk about them in the board room, in the hallways, in meetings, when you’re deciding what to do (especially then), when you’re fixing a problem, bringing new people into the organisation, over coffee in the break-room, and yes at the offsite.

Talk about them when they’re easy and when they’re pesky, inconvenient non-negotiables forcing you to find a different way of being.

And that matters more than all the others put together because…

5. If you can’t come up with everyday examples of when and where they show up, they are bullshit.

So how do you make sure they aren’t?

Spend time really looking at how you do things in your organisation. When the intention of values is true it’s not hard to find examples of them in action. Focus more on helping people understand how they connect to their every day unheroic work and less on demanding they can recite the list chapter and verse.

A true intention is the foundation of any values, still, even great philosophical minds throughout history understood values will erode without constant vigilance. In other words – you are never done. There is no there. The work to uncover them is simply the beginning.

Values show up in what you do and how you do it and no magic word or poster on the wall will make a set of words meaningful if they are bullshit.

See you in two weeks.

NOW READ: Three steps for defining your company values from someone who helped scale a business from 25 people to a team of 500

NOW READ: “Zero tolerance for brilliant jerks”: Three easy habits to improve company culture and benefit your bottom line

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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