Dr. Bettina Palazzo

A friend of mine said recently to me: 

„I never understood why companies publish value statements. I cannot imagine that this has any effect.“

If I look at many corporate values statements I have to admit that he is right: empty word bubbles on glossy paper, that present an organization that does not exist in reality. Cliché values like teamwork and integrity are overused and are not get specified what they really mean for that given company. In consequence values statements like this cannot create any emotional appeal. And finally very often nothing happens in the company after the value statement is published. It stays a dead piece of paper with no link to real-life behavior.

What a pity! What a waste of time and energy! I think this situation can be explained by the fact that companies tend to underestimate the  complexity of managing values in a credible way and overestimate the power of publishing policies and written statements.

There are tons of studies that show that companies with a strong values-based culture are more successful, because connecting your people to a purpose that goes beyond the profit motive is extremely powerful and motivating. Humans want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves, where they can have impact, appreciation and persue common positive goals. Values can be like wings that lift us to do amazing things together.

So what do you need to do to avoid the 4 apocaliptic riders of bad value statements?

The 4 apocalytic riders of value statements:

  • Too general
  • Not authentic
  • No emotional
  • No link to behavior

1. Make values specific for your company

The first step towards a values statement that works is putting extra effort into the choice and wording of values in order to develop values that are specific for the respective company. 

Instead of simply picking the usual suspects of over-used values like the above (excellence, integrity and communication) or the equally commonplace client orientation, teamwork or trust, you need to find out what really defines the culture of your organization. Choosing client orientation, teamwork and trust is the lazy way out. Nobody can be against them. All companies need client orientation, teamwork and trust, because without them they would soon be out of business. 

You need to do some more heavy thinking and find out how exactly e.g. do you serve your customers. How do you do it differently than your competition? What is unique about a clients’ experience with you? 

A good example of specific values comes from Ikea. Their values are: Humbleness and willpower, leadership by example, daring to be different, togetherness and enthusiasm, cost consciousness, constant desire for renewal and accept and delegate responsibility. They have defined values that really fit their culture and could not be used by almost any other company. 

2. Only authentic values are credible

The second step towards good value statements is ensuring that they are authentic. This is best achievied by developing them in a combination of a top-down and bottom-up approach. This helps to avoid the common pitfall of coming up with a list of unauthenic and unrealistic values that reflect the wishful thinking of top- management. In fact, it is often hard for the people at the top to know what the culture and climat of the rest of the company looks like. In general things tend to look rosier from the top. 

Does that mean you should start with a couple of employee focus groups to come up with your new company values? That depends from your situation and your corporate culture. The danger of starting with a bottom-up development is the fact that you create expectations with coworkers that might get disappointed by the top-management. 

When I work with clients on value statements I usually like to start with a first input from the top management that is than specified and modified by a series of bottom-up workshops. In these workshops we discuss questions like 

  • “What does this values really mean to us?”
  • “Could we do without this value?”
  • “What are positive stories about this value?”
  • “What do we stil