Are Your Company Values a Waste of Time?

Company Values

Creating a set of values is one of the most important things leaders can do. The set of shared values outline common expectations of how people will work together. When it is done well it removes one of the biggest sources of breakdowns. From my experience, most breakdowns within a company occur from misaligned expectations.

We all have expectations of each other

Every one of us has a set of expectations of how we and others should behave. Some of these are obvious and shared by everyone. For example, we should wear clothes when working in the office. Problems occur when our individual expectations are not shared by others. An example of this could be you shouldn’t interrupt another person when they are speaking. Not everyone shares this expectation and it can lead to serious breakdowns of trust and harmony in the office.

While a set of shared values in a company can’t describe every possible behavior, they can be broad enough to reduce the likelihood of major breakdowns. In the example above, a broader shared value could be ‘we value the perspectives of others’. It doesn’t say ‘we don’t interrupt others in meetings’, but that is clearly implied.

Continuing with this example, some people who regularly speak over others may not see the connection between their behavior and valuing others perspectives. If values are only described at this high level, many interpretations are possible and it is unlikely consistent behaviors will emerge. This is why many sets of company values end up being nothing more than a set of words on a poster. They are meaningless unless they are adopted.

Why do some companies follow their values?

Companies who are living by their values have one thing in common. They describe their values so clearly it is easy to understand what the desired behaviors look like when done well. They describe each high level value in one or more layers of detail. Going back to our example, here are three different levels, each bringing increasingly more clarity:

High: We value the perspectives of others
Medium: Our meetings provide a safe space where we listen to all available perspectives
Detail: Practice active listening by monitoring who is speaking in a meeting and calling for contributions from others who haven’t.

Each increasing level of detail adds more clarity about the desired behavior.

I’m not going to prescribe the required level of detail. Instead, each leader needs to determine what level of specificity is required to generate consistent behavior in line with the set of values. The only way I know how to do this is to get outside your office and talk to people. Share examples and seek others reactions. What does this mean to them? Once you start getting consistent answers you are on the right track.

Does your company have a set of values and are they shared by everyone who works there?