Making Values More Than Words on the Wall

Pick up any book on corporate culture and most books on effective hiring and you will read about the critical role of values. Yet when I talk to CEOs, business owners, leaders and individual contributors about the importance of values, I encounter eye rolling and sighs of “here we go again.”

The most common question I get when facilitating a session on values is, “How do we keep them from being just words on the wall?” And it is a legitimate question (as is the skepticism) given that up to 95% of companies that have taken the time and spent the money to identify core values never do anything with them beyond posting them to the walls of their building and websites.

The challenge is two-fold. First, companies fail to distinguish between what Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and several other books on leadership and team development, calls aspirational values and core values. Second, identifying values is the initial step in the process – not the final step.

When leadership teams decide to undertake the task of identifying their organizational values, they often identify values they feel the organization needs to embody to achieve their vision. Maybe an organization that has traditionally been slow to change direction is being pushed by outside forces to move more quickly. To maintain viability the leadership team knows the organization must have a greater bias toward action. They proclaim that “a bias towards action” is now a core value.

The problem: everyone – employees, customers, vendors – knows it is not true. It feels inauthentic, breeds skepticism and leads to a loss of credibility. The solution: label these values as what Lencioni calls “aspirational values”. Leadership must be clear that they are aware that it is not a current value but one they aspire to instill within the organization.

Core values, on the other hand, already exist. They are a part of the fabric of the organization. When they are accurately identified there is a feeling of authenticity that bolsters credibility. Core values guide behavior and help assure consistent decision making across the organization. A company’s unique combination of core values can also help create a competitive advantage that attracts both employees and customers.

One popular process for identifying core values is to identify those employees that the leadership team views as being ideal employees. What is it that makes these employees ideal? Then identify employees who are technically skilled but just don’t seem to fit. What makes these employees less than ideal despite their technical competence?

Accurately identifying core values is just the beginning of the process and unfortunately where too many companies stop. Using the analogy of an iceberg, values are below the surface of the water. We cannot directly see a value. What we see are the behaviors that are driven by the value – the part of the iceberg that is above the water.

Therefore, once core values are identified, the next step is to identify the behaviors that exemplify that value. Those behaviors must be clearly communicated along with the values. Expectations can then be set around these behaviors being consistently taken by all team members. When I work with clients around the topic of values I ask them the question, “If I was a “fly on the wall” how would I know that a team member was exhibiting a value – what would he or she be doing or saying that would be representative of the value?” Answering this question will help identify the expected behaviors.

As an example, one of shoe retailer Zappos core values is humility. A way they assess whether or not a job candidate has this value is to ask the shuttle van driver that picks the candidate up at the airport how they were treated by the candidate. What behaviors did the shuttle driver experience that would indicate the presence or lack of humility?

Once behaviors have been identified and communicated, everyone – including the leadership team – must be held accountable to these behaviors on an ongoing and consistent basis. One company, dedicated to operationalizing core values, challenged team members at all levels to identify and point out when members of the leadership team were failing to exhibit the behaviors exemplifying the organization’s values.

Yes, making values mean something takes a lot more work than simply slapping some words on a wall. It requires:

  • Identifying core values and clearly delineating these from aspirational values
  • Developing a shared definition of each value
  • Defining one to three behaviors that represent each value
  • Holding everyone – and I do mean everyone – accountable for carrying out these behaviors on a daily basis.

Would you like a compass to guide employee behavior and help ensure consistent decision making? Give me a call at 972-701-9311 or email me at to explore how we can help you operationalize your organizational values so they are more than words on the wall.

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POSTED ON: Strategy and Vision