I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organisational identity these past few weeks and as part of that, organisational values have been on my mind. And in particular a couple of issues that seem to constantly bedevil discussions of values – how do you know what they are and what should they be?
For many organisations, finding their values is an experience that feels like a cross between the Spanish inquisition and a game of Where’s Waldo. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I spend a lot of time here talking about the importance of finding your core values – the non-negotiable ones that you will not trade no matter the circumstance. And while the mix of attributes, beliefs and principles for organisations that feed into values can feel overwhelming, there are approaches out there that can help get you through the process.
This week I came across a young company that has shared their approach and resulting values for the world to see. With thanks to my colleague @cyrusallen for pointing out Jobvibe. Even though it wasn’t their values he was pointing to, I was nonetheless impressed by their approach to values.
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You can read how they tackled identifying their values here.
Alongside how to find what values are, is a continuing theme that there are good values and bad values. There is a prevalent school of thought out there that your values should be “good” a.k.a only the noble, well-intentioned and serve-mankind candidates need apply.
This idea was the one I heard again the other week, when a keynote speaker at a business conference used a quote by Jim Collins as part of his talk. The problem was he left out a critical part.
In his research for first Built to Last and later Good to Great, Collins and his researchers realised there was a defining differences between the companies that sustained success and those that didn’t – the presence of well-understood core values that were actively used in the organisation to guide actions and decisions.
The speaker talked about those findings. But here is the caveat he left out and it’s an important one. Collins says:
“One of the most paradoxical findings from Built to Last – core values are essential for enduring greatness, but it doesn’t seem to matter what those core values are…” (Good to Great page 195); and “… fundamental finding of our research, the key is not what core values an organization has, but that it has core values.” (Built to Last page 222)
The idea that having values is more important than what they are, is where many organisations come unstuck. And I believe there are a few reasons for that – front and centre being the idea that an organisation has to have certain values to be seen in a positive way.
One of the drivers of this may be the use of values as part of an organisation’s marketing. Along with vision and purpose and other important internal guiding elements, values have become de-facto campaign headlines, happily trumpeted alongside product and services in the “About Us” section of nearly every website.
When I raised this as an issue in a conversation the other day the question I got was: “if we don’t tell people what they are how will they know?” And the answer is simple.
If the values the organisation says it holds are truly non-negotiable and deeply embedded into the way the organisation makes decisions and acts, they won’t need to tell me. I’ll know – through everything they do and the way they do it and my experience with them.
The dark side of treating values as a marketing message is the corresponding desire to frame what they are to be happy and smiley so as not to offend anyone. I read a lot of values statements and have yet to see one in the public domain that is not stated in a positive way!
Why would you risk doing anything else? And that’s my point. Life in organisations and business is not all puppies and rainbows. And if we peel back the covers and really look at “the way things get done around here”, the values that drive the organisation usually aren’t either.
Even so-called good values like “friendly welcoming place to work” have a flip side that can make those organisations places where it’s hard to deliver bad news or give negative of feedback. It’s complex. But the simplified sloganeering necessary for the value to have “About Us” page sex appeal can become an impediment to providing the necessary nuance for it to be robust and useful.
Of course the other downside of making your values public is, that as long as people aren’t totally jaded by all the faux values out there, they can and will hold you accountable for them. Which shouldn’t be a problem. Except it doesn’t give the organisation much wriggle room to be even slightly fallible. And all organisations are fallible at times, even the most rigorous and aligned ones.
I confess that in the past I’ve been an advocate of making values public and even had my own on my website. But as I think more deeply about organisational identity, the important role values play and the affects of using them as public messaging, my perspective has changed.
So let’s remove our values from websites and company brochures; defining core values is not a creative endeavour. Get real about what they are and are there for (not good or bad, just what). And focus on using them more fully in guiding the day-to-day actions and decisions of the organisation.
See you next week.