Are Your Values Divisive?

For decades one of the linchpin exercises for executives has been developing a mission, vision, and values to rally the organization around a shared identity.  Going through this exercise is typically seen in a positive light especially when team members are involved in their creation.  In theory, it aligns the team by giving them a common understanding of what they are building and provides parameters of how it needs to be built.  But more often than not this exercise does not have the intended effect.  While values are supposed to be long-term guideposts, they are often in reality a teambuilding exercise or worse, a disruptive catalyst that undermines the culture of a company.

When viewed as a teambuilding exercise, the effects are often short term.  The feeling of camaraderie quickly fades away when the team focuses on their daily work.  While this result maybe disappointing, it typically isn’t disruptive to the business.

Ironically, the true disruption is when the management team builds a support system around values that are inconsistent with the company’s true identity.  When poorly defined values are propped up by management, people see through the inconsistency and resentment starts to build as the perceived hypocrisy fuels cynicism and doubt.  The longer the management team props up inconsistent values, the more cynical the team becomes thus driving a wedge between leadership and employees.

Defining the company’s values can be a useful exercise and there are plenty of examples where it works well.    In order to avoid the pitfalls of this exercise, the CEO needs to take the following into consideration when defining the mission, vision and values:

Must Be Consistent with the Owners/CEO’s Values:  The CEO’s value system is a key driver of the culture and values that are inconsistent with the CEO’s beliefs are not sustainable.   CEOs are at their best when they can consistently communicate what is important to them intuitively.  Any values that do not ring true to the CEO will not ring true of the company and make the CEO seem out of touch with the culture.

Committed Management Team:  In the end it is the company’s leaders that define the culture of an organization.   Even if the values are aligned with the CEO, the management team can easily undermine them.  Most employees measure the legitimacy of the company’s values through the behavior of their direct supervisor.

Simplicity:  Too many values indicates an incomplete effort.  Simplifying values can be difficult, but it is an important discipline to ensure the values that you choose truly represent the company you want to build.  If you have more than five values, then you have too many.

Must Align with the Purpose of the Company:  It is easy to fall into the trap of choosing values that sound good instead of ones that truly capture the culture of the company.   A good example of this is charity.  While charity is an excellent value, is it truly a cultural pillar of the company or simply something to post on social media?

For values to truly influence a company culture, they must be personal, consistent, and pragmatic.  If you choose to go through the exercise, understand why you are doing it.   As a teambuilding exercise the effect can be marginal at best.  If you want your organization to live by the values you create, choose them carefully.  Strong values can be a foundation for a stronger culture, while weak ones can drive a wedge between leadership and employees that will take years to undo.