I’ve recently given some time to think about company values on behalf of a client. In my research, I have looked through the stated corporate/business/company values of several organisations, I’m not convinced that many of them are really values.
I’ll take Zappos company values (as they were at the time of writing this) as a perfect example of what I’ve been seeing:
I love the spirit of these statements and Zappos have a culture that seems to reflect them. These statements, however, are not really ‘values’. Instead, these statements are more like ‘behaviours’.
Behaviours are the things we do. Values are the things we care about.
What are the things we care about?
The things we care about are the things that cause an emotional response – such as when we get angry or frustrated at something someone does, shame at something we do or feel joy and pride when we or someone else does something.
For example, if we care about delighting our customers, we may feel frustration when we see a colleague act with apathy towards a customer complaint or we may feel pride when we or a colleague does something wonderful that our customer didn’t expect.
We may see these responses towards in our clients too. For example, if we value Compassion and Empathy and our customer intentionally delays payment because it helps with their cash-flow we may get frustrated – or if they pay well before the final due-date we may feel positively towards them. But the issue of ‘choosing the right clients’ is perhaps beyond the scope of this article.
When we see our people reacting in these ways, we know that we have an organisational culture based on shared values. We know that we care about the same things.
Why do we want ‘company values’?
For some companies, it’s more about branding – a display of the type of company they think future customers or future employees would want to buy the products of or to work with. It is something that appears on the face of the company but isn’t necessarily reflected in the actual behaviours of the people, as we can see from this article about Enron’s company values. The journalist makes the point that all company values are much the same and really are little reflection of the reality:
I know one writer who, while struggling to draft one of these corporate credos, threw up her hands in despair and observed: ”Why not just come right out and say it? ‘We will strive to make as much money as we can without going to prison.’ ”
She was joking, of course.
What I want from stating our company values is to understand what kind of company we want to be and to guide – even drive – what we do, who we hire and who we fire. I want to see that people in our organisation (and even our clients) have shared, or at least compatible, values. I want to see a negative emotional reaction to situations that go against these values and a positive emotional reaction to situations that are aligned with these values. I want to see the people I work with instinctively do ‘the right thing’ based on our shared (or compatible) values without having to be told what ‘the right thing’ is. I accept that ‘the right thing’ for one person and another may be different – and this is where shared or compatible values are the key to a consistent experience of what we do – for the people inside and outside the company.
The things we care about drive us to act, instinctively, based on the situation at hand. If our people share these values, we’ll act reasonably consistently with each other – delivering a consistent service to our customers.
A Code of Conduct?
When we list our values as the things we do there is a danger that these statements become, to all intents and purposes, a code of conduct. Why does this matter?
A code of conduct, in some ways the ‘laws’ of a company, tells people what to do and what not to do. If we need to tell our people what to do and what not to do (i.e. what is ‘the right thing’ and what is ‘the wrong thing’ to do), I believe, we are compensating for having hired the wrong people.
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” – Plato
Codes of conduct are a way of constraining freedom. In a society where we have no choice as to who is a member of it, this may be necessary. In an organisation where we do have a choice over who is a member of it, the only reason we would have to reduce freedom is if we compromise on the ‘quality’ of the people we hire.
From slide 38 of this presentation from Netflix, they explain how many companies curtail freedoms as they grow and why they aim to increase freedoms. Hiring the right people is key to the success of this approach.
Many companies try to grow more quickly than they can find the right people to do so effectively. They hire the least-worst from the available candidates in order to grow quickly rather than hiring the best. Netflix have chosen to grow no faster than they can find the most talented people who share in their values.
The people in such an organisation can simply be trusted to do the right thing, in any situation, even if that situation isn’t one we’ve thought of previously. A code-of-conduct and its loopholes is then redundant.
We spent a lot of time thinking about our company values when we first created RiverGlide. We (Andy Palmer, James Martin and I) discussed, explored and refined our understanding of what we cared about and reflected that in our stated values. We learned more as time passed. We added to them (quite recently) because we realised there were many more things that we cared about. How we state our values continuously evolves as we deepen our understanding of what matters to us and what we think differentiates us. These values are not the values we aspire to or the values we want to impose on others. They are the values that reflect what we actually care about. They are the values we see in the people we want working with us.
We originally found ourselves wording our values like this:
<the thing we care about> – <how we reflect that in our behaviour>
Now, I think we’ll be experimenting with this subtle change:
<the thing we care about> – <how it makes us feel when…>
- Trust and Transparency – We feel great when we know you trust us through our extreme levels of transparency.
- Integrity and Courage – We would be unhappy if we told you what you wanted to hear if that was not the same as what you need to know.
- Innovation and Personal Growth – We get a buzz from learning new things, developing skills, trying whacky ideas and cultivating outside-the-box thinking.
- Compassion and Empathy – We love what we do when you love what we do. We are as passionate about your people and products as we are about our own.
- Joy and Creativity – We are inspired by fun and creativity – whether it’s in what we do or what we help you do.
Behind these values is a single purpose to our company – we make things easy – hence our tag-line “flow without friction“.
Your Company Values What?
So, what does your company appear to actually value? What values does the culture of your organisation reflect through how it rewards, recognises and respects the things that people do? How do you feel when people act in a way that is aligned or against these values? How does all of this match up to what your company says are its core values?
Why does any of this matter? It matters to me because I am happier when the people I work with are happy – clients, contractors, employees and colleagues alike. It matters to me because I want to trust that the people around me will ‘do the right thing’ and that we’ll all generally agree that what they did was the right thing (even if sometimes we have to have a discussion to understand why). It matters to the people in the company because we know we’ll share in a vision of what kind of company we should be and be motivated to make it a success together – from the most skilled & experienced craftsmen to the smartest and passionate intern.
For us this was relatively easy because we figured out the essence of our core values early in the life of our company and it has formed the foundation of all our working relationships. For you, a legacy culture may not be so easy to redefine. But, if you have a vision of the culture you want to inspire in your organisation or team… If you understand what matters (or should matter) to you and your people and what will bring your company, and the people within it, success… I think you’ll have a great starting point to begin the harder task of spreading those values throughout the culture of the people in your company and teams.