Down to the Core
Today, almost every company aims to be value-driven. Executives are pushing their organizations to create grand statements, often known as core values, guiding principles and aspirations.
Examples abound of high-performing organizations that have replaced stifling rules and policies with fundamental values supporting the culture they desire. Designing these lofty declarations is a good idea; nevertheless, many such exercises elicit snickers from the employees they are intended to inspire. Managers and front-line workers humor their bosses by placing their left hands over their hearts, raising their right hands, pledging commitment to the pretty words—and going back to work. In fact, one organization went through a value clarification, and the process became derisively known as kidney stone management. The employees’ attitude was: “It’s going to hurt for a while, but this too shall pass.”
Two common problems organizations face in defining values occur when they are designing the statements and putting them into action. Companies err by failing to boil their messages down to a few core statements or words. As a result, values statements become a laundry list pledging to be everything to everybody. In one extreme case, a Canadian utility handed out pocket-sized folders to its thousands of employees listing the organization’s 36 values. Anything beyond three to four core values is of no value at all. As with so many issues of strategy and culture, executives need to set priorities about what’s really important to the organization. Core values are those few words or short statements that act as central hooks on which to hang the key behavioral guidelines that shape everyone’s actions.
An even bigger challenge is how to instill the values after they have been articulated. Many executives make a mockery of the exercise because their actions aren’t connected to their words. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz once observed, “There’s a big difference between a bumper sticker and a philosophy.” Some executives have created “bumper sticker values” that they negate through contradictory actions.