Every hotel I stay at professes a commitment to the environment. There’s always a card telling me to leave my towels on the floor if I want new linens, and hang them up to reuse them. The card urges me to reuse my towels because washing linens consumes water, detergent, and so on. But I don’t remember the last time housekeeping actually respected my wishes when I hung up my towels. Why not?
Many companies’ Core Values feel similar to me, like leadership theater. What is the purpose of espousing values that you don’t live? Why would a company go to the trouble of listing Core Values if they’re just HR feel-good decorations that nobody takes seriously? What functions do these so-called Core Values serve, and is there a better alternative? What are “values,” anyway? What do they even mean?
I have a theory that might answer these questions. I think there are two kinds of values: good values and bad values. I think there are real purposes for both, and that it’s an important topic that leaders should take seriously. I think we’d be better off without values than with bad values, and that expectations of behavior would be better even than good values.
What Are Values?
If you do a little looking, you might be surprised how hard it is to find anyone who has a simple, clear answer to this question. For example, Netflix’s vaunted “culture deck” had a slide saying “Values are what we value.” With respect to whoever wrote it, this didn’t answer the question, it avoided it. (What does it mean to “value” something?)
Statements of values are an artifact of leadership, and leaders need to be absolutely clear on the moral implications. They’re entrusted with too much power and authority to do otherwise.
My definition: values articulate expectations about desired and undesired behavior that sets a group apart from the overall population and describes their beliefs about right and wrong.
Values serve to communicate essential truths about a group of people: who belongs here and who doesn’t? What behaviors do we reward or correct? How do we make decisions? What is right and wrong?
Values are irreplaceable for these purposes, but they’re too often crowded out by a substitute. I call it “bad values.” The difference between good values and bad values is one of kind, not of degree. Bad values aren’t merely good values done unskillfully, but another substance entirely, which has the appearance of values but really isn’t the same thing at all.
Good values are lived, not just stated. Ideally, they’re readily observable, but they also need to be stated so they’re explicit. They have teeth. You can tell what’s really valued by watching how people make decisions, what gets rewarded, what gets punished or discouraged.
Good values signal and encode norms. They describe how the group actually behaves, not what feels good to believe. They are not rules, but they are guiding principles that help people understand how to make decisions. This helps create autonomy by dispersing commander’s intent to the edges, encouraging alignment and consistency while avoiding constant escalation of decisions.
Good values differentiate by going beyond the baseline. Good values state what is necessary, not what is merely sufficient. Good values aren’t things like “honesty,” which is a baseline expectation. There’s no point in listing a “core value” that’s a low bar any functioning member of society should clear. This is not to say that good values are exclusionary, or that they need to be completely unique, but they should say what’s particular about a group that isn’t otherwise to be taken for granted about any group.
Good values don’t change much or often, if at all. They may need to be refined as time passes and the group understands them with more nuance, but at core, they don’t change. If a group’s statement of core values changes significantly, you can safely assume that either the old or new values aren’t good values.
Bad values, as I mentioned above, aren’t merely values that are done badly. They’re a kind of antimatter, which is unfortunately all-too-common in corporations and prevents good values from being established. It’s part of the trend in pseudo-leadership literature to create a paint-by-numbers recipe for leadership and culture. “Write down your vision, mission, and core values!” This is how you get Enron’s core values: Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence.
Bad values are feel-good statements of lofty things that someone frames and hangs in the lobby. Enron’s were engraved in the impressive entryway to their grandiose building.
Bad values come from bad reasons for having values:
- You read in a leadership book that you should have values, so you have values, regardless of whether you knew what you were doing in creating them.
- You want to feel good about yourself, so you write noble lies on a flip chart with a lump in your throat.
- You looked at other companies and their websites have values, so you copy the external artifacts of their culture without understanding what gave rise to that culture.
- You want to perform leadership—you want to feel like you’re leadering right.
- You want people to feel inspired and you don’t know how else to do it.
- You didn’t realize that culture is an outcome, not an input, so you thought you could define the company culture by telling people what culture to have.
- Perhaps you are a genuinely unethical person but you’re trying to fool employes into thinking they work in a company with high ethical standards.
Bad values are often aspirational, not really lived every day. Bad values can be ignored without consequence. Bad values are often superficial. Bad values can be many; you can’t have 12 “core” values, so if the list is 12 items long you can be sure it’s not good values. Bad values are worse than no values, because at least not having values is the absence of a lie.
Bad values stop at words like “believe” and “feel.” The word “value” itself belongs to the same category. It’s an easy cop-out, because beliefs and feelings are intangible, untestable, and personal. I have no ability or right to tell another person what to believe or feel, and in many cases it’s against the law to take any action against a person based on their beliefs, which makes bad values utterly unenforceable. Some companies seem to want bad values for this very reason, because it lets them hide behind their values while being unaccountable for violations.
Bad values often have a smell, because they are dressed up in exaggerated language like “committed.” The hotel is “committed” to protecting the environment—really? Words like “committed” are testable. If a company is committed to something, their very existence depends upon that thing; they are past the point of no return. Watering down strong language in this way is a telltale sign that a values statement is marketing, not leadership. What happens to the hotel if they don’t protect the environment? Literally nothing.
What’s The Alternative?
Everyone is used to the vagueness and meaninglessness of “Core Values,” so for better or worse, we’re likely to continue calling them that even if we don’t know what they mean. But I wish we didn’t. I wish we were more explicit.
My childrens’ school has three Expectations posted on the wall. They’re really great—they’re Good Values. They’re specific, clear, enforced, and frequently referenced. It’s way better than most companies’ core “values,” and in fact aligns completely with the values we live in my family.
It seems to me that a better name for good values is simply Expectations. Food for thought: if you were job hunting and you looked at the company’s careers page, would Core Values or Expectations speak more honestly to you?
Some folks have suggested that “Code of Conduct” is a better phrase. Maybe. I think it’s best to keep that separate, because it’s associated with events. And a Code of Conduct has expected elements such as escalation policies and points of contact, which don’t feel fit-for-purpose as a replacement for Core Values.
The following contributed to my thoughts on this topic:
- Honeycomb: Honeycomb Values, 2018.
- Jessica Kerr: Shared Values are Overrated.
- Zee on Twitter: “The reason I love @jessitron’s framing here is that ultimately, behaviors are what cause harm or create benefits. Beliefs, values, etc. all ultimately manifest in behaviors; but the actions that emerge from a set of values or beliefs can vary wildly.”
- Netflix’s culture deck; their new culture website is much clearer.
- My distinction between “good values” and “bad values” was inspired by the book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.
- Many thoughts shared by others over the years, similar to this example from Steven Shorrock on Twitter: “And here is the problem. Culture is not a lever. You can’t manipulate it. You can’t design it. It can be influenced, but it is much easier to influence badly by intervention. Work on the work with the people who do the work and are affected by it. Culture change comes for free.”
- My childrens’ school.
This section is a collection of potentially related work by others, presented without comment or endorsement.
- Why Diversity Is Important to Etsy - Etsy
- Not in My Kitchen, You Don’t: Leaders as Norm Setters - Dave Kellogg
Appendix: Historical Core Values at VividCortex
Historical archives are interesting and instructional. At the time of writing, the Core Values I wrote in VividCortex’s employee handbook are below.
Values are beliefs about the right way to act, and guide our decisions and culture. Our values spring from who we really are. They are non-negotiables, not nice-to-have ideals or marketing.
- Empathy. We let go of our egos, consider other perspectives, and act as we would wish others to act.
- Growth. We challenge ourselves and each other to get better every day. We try to improve ourselves, our colleagues, our communities, and our world.
- Pragmatism. Done is better than perfect, so we ship now and improve later. We work in short cycles. We make smart investments of time and risk to define, measure, and execute the shortest path to better.
- Inclusiveness. We believe diversity is a strength. We treat each other as equals regardless of factors such as background, location, or employment status.
For the sake of clarity, I am now the CTO, and although as a founder I’m heavily influential in the company’s cultural artifacts, the new CEO officially has the final say in whether this will change. I will simply point out that my cultural awareness and understanding has changed over time, and given that and the above essay, I would probably revise at least some parts of that section of the handbook if I were still CEO.