I wrote this article in 2012, but the ideas are equally relevant today.
Every year, thousands of individuals sit down with colleagues, business partners and sometimes strangers to write values statements for their businesses and organizations. The processes are usually similar. Laughter may erupt as owners, managers and employees participate in a team-building activity, and the group may spend time talking about how the organization was founded and what it does for customers or clients.
At some point, group members list traits and beliefs that are important to them—what compels them to do what they do. The group shares ideas, compares lists, eliminates duplicate thoughts and begins to prioritize the emerging values. After serious discussion and additional narrowing, the group settles on the top five or six ideas, and the group or a designated team create a statement that spells out the values common to members of the group or organization.
Group members may tweak the newly created values statement, and then they agree that it adequately describes what they hold near and dear as they work together. Ultimately, the values statement is announced with differing levels of fanfare. It is inserted into printed and online content, and it may be posted on walls in the organization.
Some people who created the statement never think of it again. For them, it was a nice feel-good activity for a day or two, and then it is time to get back to real work. Others run across it occasionally and are inspired. For a select group, the values statement becomes the compass that guides their behavior.
As a person who has participated in and led many such groups, I believe it is important to understand why the third strategy is far superior. The following provides some basis for that belief.
Values define individuals and groups. Friends, colleagues, family members and casual contacts discern values from one’s actions, not from one’s words. Observable behavior establishes a person’s brand. Therefore, it is important to identify and understand one’s values and to align behavior with them. Like a personal brand, the actions of group members enhance or diminish the group’s brand. Employees, customers, clients and the public judge an organization by its members' actions. Unless group members fully understand and embrace a values statement and live by the principles it suggests, the values statement is worthless.
Just as individuals demonstrate their values by their actions, groups and organizations express their values in daily activities. A values statement should filter all group decisions and actions. Those include decisions about whom to hire, when to fire, how to treat customers and employees, and how to manage the organization. Acting in violation of stated values (and public values statements) feeds cynicism and mistrust.
Values guide action. Genuinely held values determine an individual’s behavior. We may say we value family, but if we do not promote family or try to spend time with family members, that value is secondary. It feels good to say it, but other values, such as feeling competent at work or spending time with friends, are more important.
Values generate emotions and culture. An individual’s core values generate emotions. One may feel love or fondness toward a person who shares his values. Likewise, he may feel anger or hatred toward someone who acts in opposition to his values. Confusion, frustration or fear may surface when one does not understand the values of another. Values also produce the enthusiasm to work and the energy to be creative. It is important to recognize differing values, the power values represent and the emotions they can generate.
Just as values generate emotions in individuals, they shape the culture of a group. Whether written or unwritten, stated or unstated, the commonly held values of a group determine the culture in which group members live and work. Living in a culture that conflicts with one’s values leads to distress and discord. A culture that aligns with one’s values often yields passion. If not passion, a complimentary culture can at least provide contentment and loyalty.
Values rarely change, but groups and individuals should revisit their values statements. An individual’s core values usually remain stable. Values such as integrity, honesty and being kind to others may last a lifetime. However, circumstances and immediate concerns lead to different priorities. One’s focus may shift at different times in life. A person’s attention shifts as they move from college to young family to changing job responsibilities to retirement. For that reason, it is important to review one’s values periodically to see if they align with current realities.
When looking at groups and organizations, it is also important to review and revise values statements regularly. As group members come and go and as markets or social conditions change, the group should reconsider, revise or confirm that they continue to hold the stated values and can live by the standards of behavior they imply.
Worthy values are sometimes in conflict. We can go no farther than the U.S. Constitution to see that some very worthwhile values are in conflict. As Americans, we say we value Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, but those First Amendment freedoms may conflict with other values such as the Sixth Amendment right to a fair and impartial jury or to issues of national security. For individuals, values such as excellence may conflict with a concern for efficiency or expediency. When individuals know their values, they have a lens through which to view conflict and controversy.
In organizations, stated values may also be in conflict. In a school system, for example, a statement that lifelong learning is essential for individuals and communities may be in conflict with another value stating that families are the first and most powerful influence in a person’s life. Conflict can arise when parents question how learning will take place or when parenting practices conflict with learning goals. For these reasons, leaders must clearly express what each part of a values statement means and develop and demonstrate unambiguous decision-making processes to deal with conflict.
Publicly stating core values and beliefs requires courage because that declaration creates an expectation of specific behavior. Following through with that behavior over time requires commitment. However, if groups or individuals do not examine their values and work to achieve alignment, agreement and acceptance, they have no clear direction. A values statement is a means to that end.
Developing a values statement is relatively easy; living those values is the challenge.