Your Company Values Are (Likely) Meaningless

A lot of money, effort and nice wine have gone into the values on your lobby wall.

If your company is like most, they are the output of an executive off-site that focused around answering the thorny corporate existential questions like, Who are we? What’s our mission? Our BHAG?

But this methodology is flawed on many levels.

First, we’re asking a select group of people to determine what the rest of the company should believe.

This is the reason so many culture initiatives fail. The audacity to think that coming down from that mountain-top off-site with a couple of stone tablets and decreeing a new set of values is, at best, ignorant. If I walk into your office and tell you that you now believe you prefer to work autonomously rather than collaboratively you’d agree. After all, you don’t want to be fired. But the odds you actually modify your behavior or perform up to your prior level can be measured somewhere to the right of a decimal point.

Second, everyone is susceptible to their own bias. 

They’re human, after all. Everyone wants the culture to be molded in the vision of their own value systems. One person feels it’s necessary to act as teams. Another believes acting like individuals fosters healthy competition.

We all see the world differently and will argue for our own values.

Not only is this exhausting, but it breaks down the will of the executives who are then forced to find the most vanilla values possible.

Third, the values executives select are so vague they are meaningless. 

Let me guess, you value integrity. Would you really be in business if you didn’t?

Everyone goes into the off-site with the best of intentions. But after a few hours everyone is exhausted and just wants to get home to their families. What words can everyone agree upon? The lowest common denominators.

Who can disagree with integrity? Agreement isn’t a sign that that value dictates the interaction between your employees; just that you at least have the social graces to likely avoid being behind bars (Enron execs excluded).

The purpose of this post isn’t to berate your values, but to get you to recognize that the work you did together is a sunk cost. Let it go because it’s not going to drive your success.

Instead, listen. Understand from everyone what their values are. Understand how work gets done, how decisions are made and what the communication norms are within and between teams. That is your culture.

And while it may not be what you want, you at least know what you have. You know how far you have to go.

It’s okay not to want what you have, but know that a new set of values aren’t going to change anything unless there is an on-going, methodical process to pull all those levers that change culture – hiring, firing, development and rewarding.

Also know your odds of succeeding skyrocket when you’re tweaking what you already have rather than throwing out the entire thing.

Brent Daily

Brent Daily

Founder and COO of RoundPegg. Brent graduated from Stanford's Graduate School of Business and, at least prior to having two kids, could usually be found road biking through the Colorado mountains.


Just stumbled upon this rather old post, but it’s timeless. So well said, Brent! A *descriptive* approach to organizational culture will always get us a lot further than a *prescriptive* approach. More organizations need help getting real about their cultures, figuring out what they don’t like about them, and then actually working together to get where they want to go. Thanks for this. I’m intrigued to see where this goes.

Eryc Eyl Aug 11, 2013 at 8:59 pm

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