I happened across a blog by a talented startup CEO that got me thinking about "core values" statements. I certainly have been responsible for formulating and promulgating my share of Core Values statements. I have felt that it is important to get the team on the same page. To reinforce the creation of a culture by articulating underlying key values. I was always slightly uncomfortable doing this. I now realize why.
These statements are typically coming from the powers that be or, more directly, from the boss. So they are sure to be interpreted as commands. Can values be commanded, especially if they are framed as commands? "We will..." (see below) Yes, yes, I realize that in the broader social compact, laws ultimately are commands, which implement underlying core social values. The meaning of "compact" underscores the fact that I volunteer to abide by the commands, because it works out overall better for me. "Ask not what your country can do for you..." But it just does not seem good or sufficient to promulgate Core Values. Enron had a great set of Core Company values posted in their main lobby. They were beautiful. Well articulated. Important. The only problem was that many important people at the company obviously did not pay attention to them at all. Their official promulgation clearly was not effective in having a positive impact on behavior. So, something else is needed. Better for the powers that be to scrupulously abide by some key principles in their every action, leading by their example rather than by their commands.
It is hard to find the right way to frame such organizational statements. If you don't get it right, you can wind up having a rather negative affect. The kick-off example in the above blog taken from Slingshot Labs is a particularly irritating formulation for two reasons: "We will ..." uses the 1st person plural to make more palatable the fact that "I" am asking "you" to do something. It is OK, because I am also asking myself to do the same thing. But the "we" there is even a little more insidious. It sounds a lot like when I say to my 3 year old "We are going to the potty now." I have no intention to go to the potty myself other than to accompany my child to ensure he goes and does there what he is being trained to do. Possibly, I am making a big deal about an innocent usage of the 1st person plural, being used principally to avoid an explicit imperative form, which seems to be more "pushy". Or, more likely, to avoid the need to choose a personal pronoun, which is heavily freighted with gender "He always is honest." In the above post, Jason creates a much more fun and palatable formulation of the values statements by dressing them in superhero gear. It seems marginally better to put them in a definite 3rd person as a metaphor for the "good" team member. But do we need to make a big deal to announce them at all?
The second problem I have with the Slingshot Labs formulation is the fact that they are telling me what to think! Saying "We like our jobs" reminds me of the People's Republic of China. I traveled to Tiananmen Square in 1997 or so. I distinctly remember the feeling of surprise and disgust when I read the huge sign at the south end of the Square. The sign said something like "... you need to have to have the right attitude to be a properly contributing member of Society." Namely, you have to think in a certain way. Values statements should be crafted in a manner that aims more directly at behavior.
The values usually are so basic and obvious that, if you have chosen to hire the right people, everyone should know them already. Honesty. Clarity in communications. Hard work. Balance of individual contribution and team work. These values ought to be elevating to principle what most people are doing anyway. When we set out to formally announce the core values, aren't we trying to remind people, who we think have forgotten the basic principles? Is it so mysterious what is the right thing to do? If people aren't behaving according to reasonable principles, then there is something else terribly wrong that will not be fixed by promulgating the list of Values.
I am all in favor of provoking conversations about Core Values. Our job as managers is to inspire people to behave reasonably, honorably, and in a manner that moves forward the goals of the company. It is important to do this in the context of what people are doing as part of their jobs. It is much, much better to set specific individual goals individually (and regularly) that express and reinforce the Core Values in terms of day to day responsibilities and activities. Don't waste your time crafting glossy Core Value statements. Rather, spend this time talking to people about what they are doing and should be doing to advance personal and Company goals.