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What Companies Get Wrong About Core Values: 5 Common Pitfalls

POSTED ON 
July 12, 2022

In the last two years, one type of request has grown in terms of interest from clients more than any other: rethinking company core values. This isn't a surprise when you consider how much the employee/employer social contract has changed during the global pandemic, racial reckoning and Great Resignation underway in the U.S.  

Increasingly, employees are choosing to work for organizations with a strong set of values and beliefs that guide company actions and decision-making. In fact, a recent Qualtrics study found that more than half of U.S. employees would be willing to take a pay cut to work at a company with better values.

In this new reality, leaders and communicators alike need a clearer set of shared beliefs to guide tough decisions, like when and how to speak out on broad social issues such as racism, gun violence and abortion.

If your company’s values aren’t especially helpful in answering those kinds of complicated questions, don’t worry – you’re not alone.

WHAT COMPANIES GET WRONG...

Unfortunately, many companies still treat their company values like meaningless words on the wall. Even those organizations that genuinely WANT a values-based culture can get tripped up when doing this work.  

But why? What's so hard about writing good values anyway? Here's a quick run-down of 5 of the most common pitfalls we see companies fall into when working to craft their core values.

1. Confusing values with mission and vision

While values are certainly connected to the mission and vision of an organization, it is useful to understand the difference, and to have intentionally different concepts captured for each.  

For example, if your organization has a specific purpose or reason for existence, that should be captured in an overall mission statement that answers the question: "What would the world lose if they lost our organization?" Separately, your vision must answer how you will fulfill that purpose, and perhaps is best expressed by explaining your long-term strategy.  

Finally, think of values as the HEART of your company. Values reflect what is most important, and answer the question, "How do we want to behave?"  

When you understand and clearly differentiate between these concepts, you're more likely to paint a clear picture for employees about who the organization is, what you do, and how you do it.

2. Having too many values

Another pitfall occurs when companies feel compelled to include EVERYTHING that's important to them in within their list of core values. As Patrick Lencioni explains, companies must understand there are different types of values, such as aspirational values and accidental values, and consider them separate from those values that are truly core to the organization.  

For example, a company may aspire to be inclusive, but should not claim it as a core value if it's not inherently true and fully engrained in the culture. Doing so would likely confuse and frustrate employees who feel excluded or have observed exclusionary behavior. It's better to say nothing at all than claim a core value that's not in line with your peoples' experiences!

In addition to carefully weeding out values that are not truly core, leaders should also bear in mind that you want employees to understand, embrace and behave in ways that align with your values. And you don't have to be a scholar in adult learning to know that a set of three or four core values is much more memorable than a list of nine or 10.  

While there's no one "right" number of core values (one study found that most companies have between three and seven), we encourage organizations to keep their list as short as possible (Brilliant Ink has three).

3. Using generic, hard-to-define terms

Speaking of making things memorable...what better way to make your core values IMMEDIATELY forgettable than by choosing to use words that every other company on the planet uses?!  

For example, a whopping 65% of companies in the study cited above include "integrity" in their core values, and more than half included "collaboration."

Source: MIT Sloan

If you really want your values to mean something to employees, make sure they express what makes your company unique, and choose words that align with your identity.

4. Stopping at values and skipping behaviors

Unfortunately, many companies spend all their energy capturing the perfect core values, and don't take the crucial step of transforming those values into actionable behaviors. After all, how else can employees fully connect and understand how to “live the values?”  

As researcher, author and company advisor Brené Brown says, "If you’re not going to take the time to translate values from ideals to behaviors—if you’re not going to teach people the skills they need to show up in a way that’s aligned with those values and then create a culture in which you hold one another accountable for staying aligned with the values—it’s better not to profess any values at all."

Bottom line — if you want your values to really MEAN something to employees, be sure to attach them to clearly defined behaviors that can be observed all across the organization, and ensure they show up at every touch point within the employee lifecycle.

5. Hiring someone to "create" your values

While we love partnering with organizations to do values-focused work, we are always very clear to say that we do not create companies' values for them.

Rather, we help them uncover those values that are inherently core to the organization. But because this work can be so difficult to do right, many companies simply want to outsource the whole process.

While outside expertise is almost always helpful, companies should avoid consultants who say they'll create your company values for a fee. Instead, partner with third-party experts to listen to employees' feedback, observe behaviors across functions and levels, and understand the organization's heritage to truly uncover your core values. And yes, Brilliant Ink can help! 😊

Refining your company’s core values is crucial work

I’m always pleased when I hear organizations are embarking on values work. But before getting started, I encourage you to step back and carefully review your process and approach to avoid the pitfalls most companies fall into. After all, if you want your core values to help you attract and retain the best of the best, you must ensure they are accurate, meaningful, relatable and fully operationalized.  

For more bite-sized brilliance, subscribe to our monthly employee engagement newsletter, the Inkwell, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Pinterest!

Ann Melinger
CEO

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