I’ve watched more than my fair share of business leaders start down the path of defining a company’s core values, only to be distracted by the more pleasant route of articulating aspirational values instead. Why? Because facing the truth is hard.
Your core values are the truth. They are your behavior. They are what already exists. They are what really happens behind the closed doors, not just in the seclusion of executive meetings, but in the solitude of personal choice. They are what guide decisions, what really shape your corporate direction, and defining those core values takes more effort than you expect when you begin. Way more.
Here’s an unpleasant fact; often the core values that drive company performance don’t make for nice posters. Defining a company’s core values is challenging because facing their often ugly reality is uncomfortable. For example, a CEO may want to say “we value integrity,” because that sounds nice and reads well in company marketing pieces. But when the accurate wording is, “we value doing whatever it takes to close a deal,” no amount of aspirational wordsmithing is going to take the place of simply stating the blunt truth and attracting employees that are willing to do just that. Your aspirational expressions don’t matter. Find something else you’re willing to say out loud that actually is the truth. Only the truth matters. Only the truth has power.
This is not an isolated concern. According to Harvard Business Review, “80% of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly—values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct.” This makes little sense to me. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the true power of properly defining core values.
This comment by Patrick M. Lencioni, from the same article cited above, resonates with me: “The debasement of values is a shame, not only because the resulting cynicism poisons the cultural well but also because it wastes a great opportunity. Values can set a company apart from the competition by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees. But coming up with strong values—and sticking to them—requires real guts. Indeed, an organization considering a values initiative must first come to terms with the fact that, when properly practiced, values inflict pain. They make some employees feel like outcasts. They limit an organization’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behavior of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And they demand constant vigilance.” I’ve personally experienced all of those outcomes.
The last thing this world needs is another organization with aspirational values masquerading as core values. We have more than enough of those already.
Featured image (visible only when shared) used under Creative Commons License via DaPuglet Pugs.