Five Pitfalls To Avoid When Choosing Your Organization’s Core Values

May 25, 2019

By Peggy Alfonso, Vice President of Culture Change & Daniel Forrester, Founder

Every week we see another company recovering from a major disruption to its business: #MeToo events, Cyberattacks, horrible customer service, privacy violations, and fraud. CEOs are called to release a statement of explanation. Inevitably, within the statement, the leader links an apology to the company’s core values. The statements read like this:

“This action (an incident involving offending veterans) is inconsistent with our values and we humbly apologize.” – DoubleTree Hotel leadership

“Behavior that is inconsistent with our values has no place at Nike and we will continue to look into matters and take appropriate action where we find behavior against our code of conduct.” – Nike CEO

“Safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing, and ensuring safe and reliable travel on our airplanes is an enduring value and our absolute commitment to everyone.” – Boeing CEO in comment on the recent recall of the 737 Max

For those who believe that choosing, launching, and living core values are dated concepts and that core values are no longer relevant, consider this scenario. Imagine the toughest day that your organization will face: what would your CEO say to the world? The day will come. Brand and reputation will be at stake. “We are sorry” just won’t cut it.

Consumers buy from companies who actually stand for values similar to theirs. Employees—now dominated by millennials who make up the largest portion of the workforce—are motivated to work for companies where company values mean something and will leave companies where values are just another plaque on the wall.

Core values are what a company stands for when the whole world is watching and when no one is watching. They should lead how your company achieves its set strategy. Values are deeply human and sit within our consciousness, motivating our actions and decisions. When an organization undertakes an intentional process to define a set of core values, it can galvanize and unify employees while differentiating itself in the market.

Choosing core values requires a thoughtful, reflective, and proven process. Hundreds of thousands of companies quickly declare their core value is “integrity” because no one will argue against a word that stands for honesty and morality. But it is also such a universal human value that its selection is meaningless, doing little to inspire employees or differentiate the organization. By undertaking the hard and truly transformative work of choosing values that mean something specifically to your organization, your leaders can inspire a movement.

From our work helping organizations to choose, launch, and instill their core values, here are five pitfalls to avoid:

Don’t rush it. We have seen companies take multiple years to get to core values—and we have seen companies overreact to media criticism and rush their choice of values. We believe that a slow, thoughtful, informed, and inclusive process is the best way to choose the right values and drive desired actions and behaviors. This exercise is worth time—consider allowing three to six months to articulate a value set that can animate your organization. And remember that you might want to revisit these values a year later, after road testing their impact.
Don’t relegate the process to one department to drive. Instead, use an inclusive process that involves the whole organization—engaging every employee, especially those who exemplify your desired culture and whom your organization would cringe to lose. Also, your CEO must sponsor the initiative. Finally, your organization’s board must be ready to stand behind the values and support the CEO in upholding them.
Don’t forgo data. While you cannot use data alone to choose your core values, having data elevates the voice of the collective and serves as a critical input in the values selection process. Once you have data, linking it to stories and moments that could only happen in your company will turn numbers into imagery that employees can grasp. Measuring your current and desired culture (not the same as measuring degree of employee engagement) yields critically important data.
Don’t underestimate activation. In the weeks leading up to a well-designed values launch, leaders might imagine that the values are taking root. This is likely untrue. Activating and instilling values can take months and even years because bringing values alive happens through a carefully implemented and executed rollout plan, management attention, and ongoing, relentless dialogue.
Don’t forget that you will be tested. Your organization’s commitment to its values will be tested, possibly within days of when the new values go live. There will be an incident, perhaps a public scandal or perhaps the need to exit an employee who has tested your commitment to the new values through his or her behavior. Imagine such shocks playing out and ensure that your board and leadership team have tested scenarios to know how leadership will act BEFORE you make your values public. Consider Johnson & Johnson: within days of updating their organizational credo in 1982, J&J faced the Tylenol cyanide crisis. Recently, J&J was faced with accusations that they have failed to live their credo around sales of talcum powder. You will be tested.