“If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement” (Patrick M Lencioni)

In 1994, when Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last, CEO’s all over the world starting investing time and energy in developing a set of values for their respective companies – the book made the case that many of the best companies adhered to a set of principles called ‘core values’, so many CEO’s went off-site with their respective managers to ‘discover’ these inner principles, some unfortunately fabricating the process and debasing the values, with resultant cynicism amongst employees and even customers. In many instances, the process lacked authenticity.

Values, however, can set a company apart from the competition by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees, but coming up with strong values – and sticking to them – requires real guts. Patrick Lencioni (Make Your Values Mean Something, Harvard Business Review) notes: “An organisation considering a values initiative must first come to terms with the fact that, when properly practised, values inflict pain. They make some employees feel like outcasts. They limit an organisation’s strategic and operational freedom and constrain the behaviour of its people. They leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations; and they demand constant vigilance”.

Many employees get confused with values – even mistaking some general or aspirational values as core values. Lencioni, in his article, thus suggests four categories of values:

  • Core Values – the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions and serve as cultural cornerstones. Collins and Porras suggest that core values can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain.
  • Aspirational Values – values that a company really needs (but currently lacks) in order to succeed in the future. These values need to be managed so as not to dilute the core (e.g. a sense of urgency).
  • Permission-To-Play Values – the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee. These values tend not to vary much across companies, particularly those from the same industry, so they never really help distinguish a company from its competitors (e.g. integrity – most companies expect this of all staff).
  • Accidental Values – values that arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time, usually reflecting common employee interests or personalities (e.g. having fun or dressing in a hip style). These values also need to be managed well so as not to alienate those with diverse views or tastes.

Values initiatives require content veracity and leadership authenticity where the CEO and other executives own the values process, live the values and solidify them into everything. An astute Lencioni further emphasises: “Values initiatives have nothing to do with building consensus – they’re about imposing a set of fundamental, strategically-sound beliefs on a broad group of people”. They must be integrated into every employee-related process – on-boarding, hiring and firing methods, performance management systems, criteria for promotions and rewards, etc. From the first interview to the last day of work, employees should be reminded constantly that core values form the basis for every decision the company makes.

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