Can you guess the three prominent U.S. organizations that these values belong to?

Organization One

  • Communication
  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Excellence

Organization Two

  • Integrity
  • Commitment
  • Advocacy
  • Respect
  • Excellence

Organization Three

  • People as a competitive advantage
  • Ethics
  • What’s right for customers
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • Leadership

Answer

  • Organization One: Enron
  • Organization Two: Veterans Affairs (under Eric K. Shinseki)
  • Organization Three: Wells Fargo (under John G. Stumpf)

Yes, the stated core values of organizations are sometimes bullshit. Companies at times make the mistake of thinking of values as just marketing—something to woo shareholders, customers, and investors.

It’s true that values can help the outside world know about your organization (or who you purport to be), but they should be about much more than that. When your team works hard to come up with company values, it’s not just so you can put the values on your website and keep telling everyone that you believe in integrity, excellence, and diversity.

You use values, and you do so regularly. You deliberately apply them to how you do the job, how you do business, how you make decisions. Big decisions like hiring, evaluating performance, taking on new projects and clients, or creating your strategic plan, are weighed against your values. For instance, if one of your values is innovation and someone suggests an extraordinary project, but it’s dismissed as too experimental, you might want to reevaluate those values. Perhaps innovation isn’t actually something you’re willing to live up to. Or if you’re deliberating between buying back shares of your stock to prop of value for shareholders versus increasing wages for support staff, a value like team respect may give you guidance.

Your values should also have a balance.  If all of your values are focused on creating a progressive and welcoming workplace, you will be at a loss when you need to make strategic financial decisions. Your values should reflect how your organization functions as a whole (like the balanced scorecard). By doing so, you are setting yourself and your team up for a healthy decision-making process and being realistic about how a business should be run.

It’s not easy. As Greg Satell of Forbes points out, “Values cost something.” When you actually check your actions against your values you will have to sacrifice something else. That can be challenging and could even trigger some soul-searching. But values, when applied, do help you remember your intentions and can keep you from making arbitrary decisions or decisions that are contrary to your character or the best interest of your organization.

As you develop core values, you should be thinking through how you will actually apply your values on a day-to-day basis. Values will help you articulate those issues that are needling you. Consider, for instance, that person who puts in long hours but no one gets along with. It bothers you, but you’re not sure why and and you’re wondering if you should just let it go.

If one of your values is collaboration, however, now you can point to why it is a real issue. You can have a conversation around what that person needs to work on and why. Or better yet, the conversation may not even have been necessary because the values were already understood and practiced by the team.

Values are not easy. They should be hard to come up with and hard to live up to. Organization values challenge everyone and that means constantly pushing everyone to do better and be better. And if they can’t live up to them, either the people are not right for the organization or the values are not right for the organization.

Don’t dismiss values as just a branding or marketing tool. They are powerful and can make all the difference on the kind of institution, company, department, or person you are.

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