When you think of your company’s values, what comes to mind?
Do they serve as a compass for your organization? A manifesto? Do they hold any weight at all?
In the organizational development field, and particularly in my work in organizational culture, the importance of a solid set of values in your company cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, many leaders today still struggle to create meaningful values in their organizations despite their best efforts.
Rather than actionable corporate values statements that encompass the overall strategy and culture of an organization, leaders often lean on single, powerful words or phrases. Examples of this might be “Innovation, Community, and Service.”
They look good. They sound good. But they are all but meaningless without the behaviors to back them up.
Ideally, value statements explicitly define how people will behave with each other and customers in your organization. When values statements succeed, the daily behaviors of your people will embody the core values you set forth. When they fall flat, as Patrick M. Lencioni wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility.”
When your culture and values don’t align, your employees, customers and profitability may suffer.
So, how do you create values statements that will help align your employees and organizational culture in order to drive performance?
Creating More Meaningful Values Statements
I recently read a fascinating article by my colleague Levi Nieminen, Director of Research and Development at Denison Consulting. In it, he outlines two exercises business leaders can do to pressure test their organizational values and ensure they aren’t “bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest.”
Here is what he offers:
1. Avoid the “Feel-Goods.” This is based on the idea that values cannot be battle-tested by success. Rather, companies should think about their values in relation to difficult situations they’ve faced.
“Recall the three most challenging situations your organization [or team, etc.] has faced in the last few years and what the organization did in response to these situations. Now answer the following question: Do the values help to make sense of what was done and why?”
If the honest answer is no, it may be time to reexamine what’s really valued in your organization. By trying to develop a set of values that can be used as a framework to guide decision-making, leaders can help their teams understand why decisions are being made.
2. Look at the “Illogical” Side. Many organizations today are moving away from values-based decision-making in favor of big data and analytics. But, in the absence of hard data we have to fall back on something to serve as our guide for action.
When data isn’t present, or we don’t have all the facts, we have no choice but the fall back on our values.
“Recall the last three times when your organization [or team] made a decision ‘shooting from the hip,’ that is, when you didn’t have the intel that you wanted. In each case, describe the decision that was made and how the decision was reached. Now answer the following question: Do the values help you to explain or justify what was decided and why?”
There is a lot of value in quantitative data analysis and the information it provides, but data is becoming increasing more accessible to people as time goes on. Meaning, you and all your competitors will likely have access to identical data to inform your decisions.
When that playing field of available information is level, the “illogical,” human-side of your decisions will ultimately be what sets you apart from the competition.
Values With Teeth
Values are meant to be more than a poster on the wall.
In order to create values statements that succeed, you must start thinking critically about how they will inform your culture and the decisions that are made on a daily basis. Consider how the policies you have in place will help support them, and ensure your leadership team is both communicating and exemplifying your values to your team.
Don’t expect employees to rally around a set of hollow values when those ideas aren’t practiced and upheld by the leaders in your organization. Your organization will be better for considering these exercises, and determining whether or not your values really have any teeth.
This article originally appeared on Forbes