Your Values Are a Waste of Paper: 9 Ways to Fix It

Raise your hand if you’ve ever participated in a values setting process for an organization. (I bet you raised yours.)

Now, raise your hand if you’ve found yourself disappointed that your organization did not sufficiently live up to its stated values. (I bet you probably raised your hand again.)

One more now. Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself communicating to a colleague (maybe someone on your team, maybe a peer) that a certain behavior of theirs wasn’t aligned with one of the organization’s stated values. (There’s a strong likelihood your hand went up yet again.)

I know we’ve all seen it: lots of effort put into crafting a core values statement followed by plenty of disappointment that neither the organization as a whole nor the individual team members do enough to live up to those very values. And so the core values become, sadly, an example of a cynical exercise in corporate window-dressing. The intention behind articulating values is always laudable, but if they aren’t actively supported they can have the opposite effect intended. Stated values instead de-motivate people because they act as a reminder of a lack in leadership and collective purpose. In some cases, stated core values are even wielded as weapons, mainly serving as rationale to highlight poor performance instead of as a tool for reinforcing positive attitudes and behavior.

So since we’ve all borne witness to our stated core values falling short, let’s also then make a new commitment to re-activating them. This can be done in meaningful and practical ways.

  1. KNOW THEM: Sure, you can literally paint your values up on a wall (sure, I’ve seen this done) or put up nice posters in the pantry and meeting rooms. That’s the first step. But maybe you actually commit them to memory. Just as we should be able to articulate the mission and key strategic priorities, so too should be carry the espoused values in mind.
  2. SIMPLIFY THEM. Long-winded flowery statements may seem impressive but they make your values difficult to use and apply. When you draft them, be concise and clear.
  3. ILLUSTRATE THEM. Short and concise is important, but so is specificity. For each value, provide a few examples of what it looks like in your particular context.
  4. COMMUNICATE THEM. For both internal and external communications campaigns, use your values as themes. Highlight them in staff newsletters. Brag about them in social media. Write about them in your annual report. Make it a public, proud act to share your core values.
  5. INVOKE THEM: Whether you hold a monthly staff meeting, a quarterly board meeting, an annual planning meeting, or just a weekly team meeting, dedicate a few minutes to talk about one value. You could just read your values statement, choose one and share an example of how this value has recently been demonstrated, or think of other ways to invoke your values into regular meetings.
  6. RECOGNIZE THEM: Establish a Value-of-the-Month recognition practice. Let people know in advance which value will be assigned to each month. Encourage people be even more attuned to how their behaviors and actions reflect the value chosen of the month. Request nominations at the end of the month for those who especially embodied that value., and recognize some of the inspiring examples.
  7. APPLY THEM. Incorporate a “values check” as one step in shaping important strategic decisions. Make it a point to explicitly stop and ask, “If we take this decision, how does it square with each of these values?” In some cases asking this question may well lead to the realization that indeed one or more of your values were insufficiently factored into the choice you were about to take.
  8. SHARE THEM. Use your core values for a team-building and engagement exercise by holding periodic storytelling circles using your core values as the theme. Gather people together in a circle of chairs and take turns choosing a value and sharing stories about examples of people living up to these values.
  9. CHANGE THEM. It’s a fallacy to think your core values must stay fixed over a long period of time. Reassess your stated core values each year and you may find it less important to emphasize certain themes, and that a new value is emerging as one worth embracing.

Positive reinforcement actions will help bring your core values to life. Notice on this list there are a few things that you don’t see:

  1. Including the values on performance evaluation forms.
  2. Using values as a screen for choosing new hires.
  3. Conducting periodic surveys about how well values are being followed.

These are each example of common practices that contribute to the notion that your core values are rules to be followed as opposed to inspirational concepts for shaping a productive work environment and cohesive team. Core values must be felt to hold meaning. Without holding a sense of meaning for people, they just add to the corporate window dressing and they’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.