The Unbearable Lightness of “VALUES”

Do your company’s values resonate with your employees? If not, chances are the values themselves are the problem. Chances are they’re not values at all but instead merely table stakes.

Last week, a friend who is also a presentation skills coach ask my opinion about an engagement that he was offered by a major Fortune 500 brand.

According to the company’s Chief People Officer the organization’s Vice President’s, who the Executive Leadership Team had charged with socializing and disseminating the values to their respective teams were having a difficult time unpacking them in a manner that resonated with their employees. The HR executive was hopeful my friend might help by coaching the vice presidents on how to explain the values via a “more compelling narrative” that would result in the employees “living the values.” 

The values, read: “At ____________ we value integrity, accountability, innovation, inclusion and honesty.” In turn each so-called value was supported by short description that ostensibly was intended to deepen the meaning and understanding. “Integrity” for example was supported by, “we act with strong ethics each and every day, and in everything we do in order to ensure that our brand continues to be respected as an ethical and honest leader in our industry.” 

Putting aside the redundancy of “Integrity” and Honesty” for just a moment, I told my friend that the problem wasn’t the inability of the VP’s to unpack the values. Instead, it was the values themselves.

First, these weren’t “values” as much as they were minimally acceptable behaviors and traits that if not exhibited by employees, would result in their being fired and the company facing any number of lawsuits, given that “honesty”, “accountability” and “inclusiveness” are mandated by law and because “innovation” and “accountability” are so vague as to be forgettable. What company today doesn’t claim to be innovative?

Second even if these were actual values that employees could embrace and “live” they are neither unique and differentiating, nor intuitive and memorable terms that employees can easily recall, let alone embrace. These values could be, and sadly are, the same as those of any number of other companies across the country and around the globe, which at the end of the day defeats the purpose of values in the first place, in so much as successful values should espouse deeply held, evergreen and highly differentiating and unique beliefs which employees embrace with pride and as means of achieving professional career growth when they model the them in an exemplary manner. But this begs the question, how does an employee demonstrate superior “honesty”, let alone “live it?”

If this were an isolated occurrence it would make for an amusing anecdote about a well-intentioned, but ultimately failed effort by a company. Alas, when it comes to authoring values, this type of output from the board room is all too common. Worse still, the values are often propagated by highly educated executives, who are often either too inexperienced or too unaware of how to create real values that work for their businesses.  facilitate, co-create and author.  

Its why at VENN we’ve dispensed with “Values” in favor of “Beliefs.” What may at first glance sound like so much sematic flourish is in fact a significant difference. First the Beliefs that we help brands author and bring to life are based on the brand’s purpose. Purpose – an emotional commitment to why the business exists trumps the more rational and mundane “mission” every single day.  

Second, effective Beliefs are iterative and build off one another and cascade from one belief to the next, beginning with the most globally applicable core belief down to the most specific belief which impacts employees and consumers alike on a deeply personal level.

Third, because they are derived from the Brand Purpose, and if developed authentically, Beliefs are far more competitively differentiating and more pride-instilling in the minds of employees than typical “values.” Effective brand beliefs increase employee engagement, satisfaction, retention and productivity in a manner that values rarely ever can.

Are your business’s values powerfully distinct and memorable, or like the ones described here, are they merely table steaks?

If they’re the latter, VENN can help, beginning with a free consultation and an exploration of the opportunity to discover your brand’s whitespace.

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