Why Company Values Lists Feel Phony

by Joseph Kwon in

Everyone who has worked at a larger organization has come across a statement or short list that summarizes the key values of the organization. This might be named core values or company values. Or substitute the word "principles" for "values" or the word "guiding" for "core." The wrapper may appear slightly different, but the good, gooey center is the same. Create a high level list that will help guide employees, in alignment with the corporate culture and with a view towards promoting organizational success.

You may have been around when a new or revised list has been rolled out with much fanfare. The best case scenario is the values already resonate with you because you immediately recognize these as part of the DNA of the company. In this case, the list serves as a periodic North Star to existing employees and provides a useful signaling function to prospective employees and new hires.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for the proclaimed values to be met with a feeling of disconnect or even skepticism. Maybe these are aspirational values that bear little resemblance to current standard operating procedures. Or in the worst case scenario, maybe employees feel that the list is a complete and utter farce. I don't believe most companies would give a consultant a pile of money and invest precious hours of executive time just to come up with a list for PR purposes.

So why do otherwise loyal and well-meaning employees feel this way?

1. Old Habits Die Hard

Samuel Johnson observed, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”

If a values list doesn't resemble current habits or in the alternative, acknowledge making a break from the institutional habits of the company, it won't ring true. Has HR shown there is a double-standard for the handling of executives versus worker bees? If so, then any declarations around fairness, equality or integrity might not be so well-received. I don't mean to pick on HR, this could be in any department or at any level. Remember, bad habits beat the crap out of good intentions on a daily basis. In fact, it jams it in a locker, gives it a wedgie, and steals its lunch money.

2. The Power of Conformity

I once had an opportunity to participate in a team-building session which used Improv Comedy. One exercise began with the first person being instructed to stand in place and come up with a move (e.g., lifting their arm or stomping a foot) and an accompanying sound and to keep repeating both until the exercise ended. Then, the second person would stand next to the first and come up with their own move and sound. And so on and so on. Now when you are standing outside the group, this looks pretty ridiculous. But as the group / human machine grows, it seems less odd. A kind of cadence forms. And when you finally join, this seems even more normal and after a while, there is a real sense of power in the whole group doing this exercise together, moving and shouting in unison. This is the power of conformity and if prescribed values are not being lived by a majority of employees, then they will never feel normal or right. Leaders instigate the change, but it requires a critical mass of followers for it to become a reality.

The video below shows, in the context of riding an elevator, how powerful the human instinct for conformity can be.

3. Money Talks, You Know the Rest

In an illuminating article from the Harvard Business Review We Don’t Shun Unethical Coworkers If They’re High Performers, Professors Rebecca L. Greenbaum and Matthew J. Quade write about how their research showed in general, employees who engage in unethical conduct are more likely to be socially rejected by their peers. This creates a signal that someone’s unethical behaviors are not acceptable and should be corrected. However, this shunning effect does NOT HOLD TRUE if the unethical employee has the reputation of being a high performer. A double standard exists based on a person’s contributions to the bottom line. This finding held true even for organizations that on the whole are considered highly ethical. A line from the article sums it up nicely, "There’s something about being a high performer that appears to mask concerns related to immorality."

Employees are aware that high performing employees enjoy the perks of that success. However, when these perks include immunity from company values, it becomes difficult, if not impossible for employees to wholly embrace such values.

There are no EZPZ answers here, but by recognizing and addressing some of the challenges related to Company Values Lists, organizations will have a better chance of getting employees to buy into the values, which is for lack of a better word, invaluable.

Next post next Saturday, 6:30 a.m.