Do Your Corporate Values Have Value?

Picture of a man thinking if Your Corporate Values Have Value?

Are values just “nice-to-haves” so that when a new recruit enters your corporate lobby you can proudly point to the poster of “standard” values that impress…like integrity, accountability, team work, results-driven, and so on? Or do your corporate values actually have value?

  • Do they define what is really important?
  • Do they espouse the fundamental beliefs of the organization and its leaders?
  • Do they help to guide important decisions?
  • Are the modeled and monitored by leadership?
  • Do high performers consistently live them?
  • Are their rewards for following them?
  • Are their consequences for not following them?
  • Do they have a real purpose in the business world?
  • Are they the bedrock of a high performance environment?

Done right, corporate values can serve as the foundation for who you hire, fire, promote, reward and how you make critical decisions.  But coming up with and living meaningful values for your team or organization does not happen without serious commitment and effort.  Explicitly lived values create accountability and therefore, discomfort.  Like an immune system, values can make some employees feel unwanted or constrained.  Strong values create boundaries for the accepted behavior of its people. They also open the door for executives to be quickly judged as hypocrites when even minor variations are perceived.

One of the best ways to test whether or not values have true worth is what happens when the going gets tough. Nothing’s going right. The world seems united against you. Now how do you behave? Is it in alignment with your values?  This is the true test of whether your values work for you and your organization…not when the sun is shining but when storm clouds gather. Do they act as guideposts for the decisions you need to make? If so, they’re doing their job.

For example, in 1982 seven people mysteriously died from taking Tylenol extra-strength capsules – the bestselling, non-prescription pain reliever at the time.  That triggered a national scare that prompted an untold number of people to throw medicine away and stores nationwide to pull Tylenol from their shelves.  The capsules had been purposely laced with a lethal dose of cyanide.  Some executives faced with such a nightmare would try to mitigate their financial and public relations risk through smokescreens, delays and denials. To its credit, Johnson & Johnson took an active role with the media in issuing mass warnings, called for an immediate and massive recall of the more than 31 million bottles of Tylenol, offered replacement capsules to all, and posted a reward for any information leading to the apprehension of the individual or people involved in the random murders.  The corporate value they followed – “protecting people and public safety first.”   Although they were not responsible for the tampering of the product, they assumed responsibility and lived their values.

Alternatively, there is the extreme example of Enron’s famously hollow values of respect, integrity, communication and excellence.  The biggest business bankruptcy ever is a stark example of misplaced principles hurting employees, stockholders, communities, vendors and families.

In an article by Collins and Porras in the Harvard Business Review in 1996, the authors talk about a company’s “core ideology” which they define as what a company stands for and why they exist. They refer to company builders like David Packard of HP and William McKnight of 3M who “understood that it is more important to know who you are than where you are going, for where you are going will change as the world around you changes.” Their premise is that values are the bedrock of an organization.  We agree.

Values matter when things go wrong. They also matter when the way forward is unclear. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Times are uncertain and you can’t have all the facts but need to forge ahead. Well-conceived values will help steer you in the right direction. For a company like Zappos, for instance, whose primary value is to “deliver WOW through service,” there are no holds barred when it comes to satisfying the customer. No matter what, this “powered by service” company will continue to make their decisions based on customer satisfaction. It is what has driven them this far and will drive them further even when the future is uncertain. The customer comes first and that’s that.

Do your corporate values have value?

Download a How to Build a Purposeful and Aligned Organizational Culture to learn more.

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