by Dr. Bettina Palazzo

Corporate values statement only seem like fluffy, easy stuff. Beware! If not done properly they can create a lot of damage.

« Excellence », « integrity » and « communication » These seem to be the most popular buzzwords in corporate value statements. 

I roll my eyes as soon as I see these values anywhere. Why? I will give you four reasons why they make me nervous:

1. One size does not fit all

First of all, values like excellence, integrity and communication are way too generic. They could be adopted by any organization. Who would be against excellence, integrity and communication? But are they really specific for the company and its culture or business model? Probably not! Excellence can mean many things to different people. It certainly makes a difference what we mean by excellence whether you are working in a bank or a hospital. 

Integrity? It means that you always stick to your moral principles no matter what the benefit might be if you break the rules. This value, too, needs a lot of definition and soul searching before a group of people like a company can agree what it really means to them:

When is a gift a bribe?

How do we deal with confidential information? 

Can I be friends with a supplier? Etc.

Corporate-Value

Yes, way too often value statements are empty word bubbles! Please avoid that. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

2. The true colors are always shining through

Second, often companies succumb to the temptation to choose values that sound appealing but are too far away from their corporate reality and somehow hoping that the simple act of proclaiming that value it will become a reality in the organization. For example, when companies put “communication” in their value chart they wish to express with this value, which is not even a value but an activity, that they want everyone in the organization to cooperate effectively and openly with as little political power play as possible.

Wishful thinking in many cases!  Of course, the people in the company know this and react with cynicism. 

You cannot declare that your company cherishes collaboration, open communication and team work when in reality your corporate culture is driven by fierce internal competition, politics and monetary incentives only. What we need is an inside-out approach.

You have to do your internal cultural homework before you go into the world and brag about what a wonderful company you think you are. 

Values statement will never work, if they are only the icing on the cake, they have to be the very foundation of a corporate culture.

Within the icing-on-the-cake approach the top management comes together and agrees on some fancy sounding words that are than communicated to the lower ranks. This does not work. It is like putting on make-up without washing your face. Or like learning some moves and gestures to appear more self-assured without doing the hard internal work of personal development.

France Telecom had to learn this the hard way in 2008, when they got hit by a series of over 30 employee suicides: victims stabbed themselves in the middle of company meetings, jumped out of the window at work and left good-bye letters that clearly stated that they killed themselves because of the pressures and fears at work.