Eight Reasons to Reject Cynicism, and Rethink the Meaning of Your Values

July 9, 2010
Identifying a set of values and making sure everyone lives by them is the key to establishing a strong, successful company.

Despite the daily reports of fiscal mismanagement, unchecked greed, massive bankruptcies, and rampant downsizing, a growing number of companies are getting back to the basics of good business. In these organizations, leaders are seeing that consistently putting short-term results and performance measures over long-term adherence to corporate purpose and values just doesn’t work. Eventually, it backfires.

What does work is identifying a set of values and making sure everyone lives by them — no matter what. When companies reject lip-service slogans and put their values front and center, and when employees passionately espouse them rather than rolling their eyes and making snide comments, they’re more likely to survive economic hardship and change. Simply put, embracing a set of core values can change the way your company runs.

1. Values instill a sense of purpose. Inner motivation based on strong values can do what no amount of professional development or department overhauls ever will do.

Think of America’s Revolutionary soldiers, fighting a larger, better-equipped, and better-trained British army. Just as those early Americans were spurred by their desire for liberty and a love of their country, employees of values-driven companies will push harder and farther than their counterparts that lack purpose.

People crave and thrive on work that’s meaningful. They need a sense of purpose, a cause bigger than themselves. That’s a much more powerful motivator than money. If you give your organization purpose and meaning through core values, your employees will motivate themselves.

2. Values create consistency, which breeds accountability. If you’ve ever worked at a company with no clear values, you know how tough it is to hold people accountable. Employees frequently don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do, because they don’t know what that is. No one has ever made it clear that it’s more important to, say, meet a longtime customer’s request than to adhere to a strict budget. Or, as is often the case, the rules change from day to day, so when someone makes the wrong decision and ends up losing a customer—well, it’s pretty hard to hold him accountable.

Values make it clear exactly when the ball was dropped. It’s easier to hold people accountable when there are rules to hold them accountable to. And, for a variety of reasons, people in these kinds of organizations tend to hold themselves accountable.

3. Values simplify decision-making. Everything comes down to: “This either supports our values or it doesn’t.” Establishing a set of core values cuts down on equivocation, excuses, and those “Yes, but…” rationalizations. True, life’s not all black and white, and sometimes it’s genuinely tough to know the right thing to do. Nevertheless, do your coworkers (or even you) try to test boundaries, cut corners, or operate in an ethically fuzzy area simply because they can? If descriptions of Enron-like behaviors are too close for comfort, establishing—and sticking to—organizational values can be a game changer.

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to see leaders backdating documents or low-balling prices to get a step or two ahead. In the short term, those behaviors might be allowed or even condoned because of the results they produce. But, we all know that in the end, they bring trouble. If your organization’s decisions are guided first and foremost by values, people will be less tempted to make these kinds of “mistakes.” They’ll know exactly what the acceptable paths are, and if they want to stick around, they’ll follow them.

4. Values boost productivity. In much the same way as they simplify decision-making, putting a set of core values in place will streamline your organization’s processes and procedures. If your team is comprised of 15 individuals, chances are, they have 15 different ways of communicating — and that can mean misunderstandings, lost time, and unnecessary work. However, all that changes if “communication” becomes a core value and everyone agrees on what it looks like in action.

How much time is lost in your organization just because people have different priorities and different ways of approaching tasks? If someone gave you an exact answer, the number of minutes probably would shock you. Defining your values will increase efficiency and boost performance because everyone will be on the same page. Without alignment, though, focus is much harder to achieve.

5. Values facilitate employee “ownership.” If at different points in your life you’ve rented an apartment and owned a home, you know that there’s a world of difference between the two. In an apartment, the buck rarely stops with the renter. There’s a building superintendent to fix what’s broken, and if the floors get a little scuffed, well…they’re not yours. But when you’re paying a mortgage, you’re responsible for anything that breaks and you’re going to be a lot more diligent about maintenance.

The same thing goes for your employees. If someone’s job is just a paycheck to him, he’ll take care of his responsibilities, but he won’t go beyond the call of duty. However, when employees feel that they have a personal stake in the company’s culture and future, they’ll work with more heart and soul. They’ll hold themselves accountable. They’ll genuinely care about where their organization is headed, because they’re interested in its future and reputation and not just in collecting a paycheck.

6. Values align and unify people, rather than dividing them. When a team’s only governing stricture is “This project needs to be done by next Tuesday,” there’s a lot of leeway as to the “how.” In such an environment, the self-centered, the power-hungry, the divas, and the bullies can thrive. You know who these people are: they get the job done, but their methods are divisive, their attitudes are negative, and they’re really in it only for Number One. Are they really the ones you want propelling your organization?

When companies adopt core values, everyone has to agree on what they mean and how they’ll look in action. This sort of consensus puts everyone on an equal footing in a way that transcends position and hierarchy—it ensures mutual courtesy and respect. Essentially, core values facilitate a “one for All” mentality instead of a “one versus all” mentality, because hidden agendas and petty power plays can’t thrive.

7. Values immediately separate the people who don’t “fit.” Despite a company’s best efforts to incorporate purpose and values into its culture, there will inevitably be dissenters who refuse to adjust their behaviors. Maybe it’s the hotshot designer who thinks his talent places him above the rules, or the disparaging sales manager who derides your company’s values as “touchy feely mumbo-jumbo.” The bottom line is this: these individuals must go, because their cynicism and failure to cooperate undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the organization as a whole.

Employees either buy into the core values or they don’t, and if they don’t, they have to leave. There’s no middle ground here— everyone has to shape up or ship out, because those who aren’t living the values are like poison. Inevitably, their negativity and rule-breaking will disillusion others. It usually doesn’t take long for these values-saboteurs to make themselves obvious. If you give them a chance to change their behaviors and they don’t take it, you’ve got to stick to your guns.

Along those lines, having a set of core values makes it easier to hire the right people. Even the world’s most talented project manager will bring you down if he undermines values, so remember: Hire Values, Train Talent. Eventually, you’ll have a company in which everyone shares the same general motivations and values.

8. Values encourage people to respect their leaders and each other. Most of us have had at least one “bad boss,” and it’s not an experience we’d want to repeat. What makes someone a “bad boss?” Most often, it’s that for whatever reason (playing favorites, poor communication, rudeness, a lack of integrity, etc.) the team does not respect that person. In other words, this isn’t someone to whom employees will ever lend their wholehearted support.

When a company truly lives by its values, its leaders will be respected. Espoused values require leaders at all levels to be clear, consistent, credible, and constructive. Plus, because living by core values engenders trust. It creates a work environment of mutual courtesy and respect.

In an atmosphere of corporate fraud, scandal, and economic difficulty, it’s tempting to be cynical about core values. I admit that the process of identifying your organization’s values and then reorganizing everyone around them isn’t easy. More than that, the job of aligning behaviors with values never ends. But, putting values over profit is worth the effort. Alignment and accountability can never be overrated, and they’ll see you through to the end.

Dennis Haley is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a nuclear engineer, a business owner, and an adjunct professor at Villanova University. He is the author of The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9727323-5-2, $24.95) Visit (www.academyleadership.com)