Do We Need Company Values in the Future of Work?

I’ve been trying to make sense of company values since my first internship in the ’90s. Whether stencilled on walls in the caf, printed on posters in the lobby, or distributed on cards in every cubicle, I’ve alternatingly rolled my eyes at their blandness and passionately engaged with pro-values supporters to understand why they exist.

The drivers for creating company values are almost always pure; a desire to call out non-negotiables so a group can coalesce around a shared identity. But the truth is that a bulleted list of attributes reflects a less-complex environment than organizations operate in today.

My decision to explore the cynicism I’ve felt started, as many things do, with identifying a personal blindspot. A few years ago, while doing research for a course on self-awareness, I got deep into personal values work. At the time, I wasn’t particularly clear on what my values were or what they might mean to me.

As I learned about values-based decision making and deliberate values trade-offs, I became a believer in defining personal values. And, as I reflect on my pre-values epiphany, I can trace most unsatisfactory work and life experience to a values misalignment that I willingly caused.

Now, able to anticipate and avoid those traps, my work, life, and relationships are just, generally, better. I no longer find myself in O’Hare, at midnight, on my husband’s birthday strategizing with a co-worker to win client work that I don’t even want to do. I don’t get sick on every vacation because I’ve exhausted myself with work before I even board the plane.

I balance the work I love with everything else I love, which means setting boundaries and inhabiting them fully. Sometimes work gets short-shrift. Sometimes my husband, friends, or yoga practice do. The difference between then and now is I recognize the choice is mine, I make it consciously, and I don’t let imbalance prevail indefinitely.

As an org designer, I’d love to effectively extend values definition, prioritization, and decision making to the system level. But, I haven’t found a place for values the way most companies use them. What follows is an exploration of a few significant issues I see with company values, and some alternatives to consider.

Issue: Leadership uses values to force alignment

I gave a talk about the role of ego and values in self-awareness to a leadership team recently. During a prep call with the most senior person, I was told not to discuss individual values because “If [our employees’] values aren’t the same as the company’s, they shouldn’t be here.”

This leader isn’t unique in her thinking, and that’s the rub. She represents a common mindset: while employees are at work, their identity must reflect the company’s. But, truly, there are a lot more of us whose number one value is a happy marriage than, say, delighting customers.

If we’re expected to bring work home, to carry the success of the company in our minds and hearts, to act like owners, can’t the company expect us to bring our whole selves to the workplace? Why do we need a taxonomy for what our best attributes should be?

Values are often designed by a small group of leaders and cascaded. One value tells employees, ”Be fun!” But… what if I’m not? Can I still work here? Maybe I’m amazing at what I do and trustworthy, loyal, a team player, a rock star in my field. Do I have to be fun, too? Can’t some of us just be nice and competent?

Most of my coaching clients identify at least one conflict between a top personal value and work situation as the underlying cause of their dissatisfaction. What happy, productive, engaged, employees need from leaders is support in co-creating an environment where personal values can thrive; not another arrow in the alignment quiver.

Instead: Dial in your Purpose

Relentless clarification around organizational Purpose eliminates the need to tell each other and the world what we value. At The Ready, we talk (a lot) about why we’re here. We trust one another to contribute to our reason for being here, understanding that both direct (client work) and less direct (knowledge management) contributions are necessary to fulfill our purpose.

Purpose work is also valuable at the team level. Creating fractal purpose within an organization brings transparency and empathy to team contribution without reductive alignment drills. Getting this right helps teams make meaning of how they connect to the whole and may eliminate the need for a set of values all together.

Issue: Specific values conflict with each other

Like my favorite bar-game, Photo Hunt, let’s find some potential conflicts in this list. Twitter’s values:

Grow our business in a way that makes us proud.

Recognize that passion and personality matter.

Communicate fearlessly to build trust.

Defend and respect the user’s voice.

Reach every person on the planet.

Innovate through experimentation.

Seek diverse perspectives.

Be rigorous. Get it right.

Simplify.

Ship it.

Recognizing that personality matters, should I take someone’s sensitivities into consideration when communicating fearlessly? As an extrovert who communicates directly, I have to work harder to be mindful of the receiver than on cultivating fearlessness. If I were a Twitter employee, how would I decide which is more important? Fearless communication or taking personality into account? If I know a co-worker is struggling with an insecurity but I feel they need to hear a hard truth, what then?

What about innovation through experimentation? This idea is one I talk about with clients every. single. day. The most significant barrier to cultivating a culture of experimentation? Fear of being wrong. So, is it more important to Get it Right or to experiment? If you’re doing the latter well, the former will happen. If you chase the former, it won’t.

These are examples of how the most important things identified by one company could cause more confusion than cohesion. When individuals sense this dissonance some will try to make sense of it; many will disregard the values they can’t reconcile altogether.

Instead: Recast values as broad ways of working

Some companies have taken their values toward being broad ways of working, communicated in brief phrases. Moving away from generic attributes (I’m looking at you, integrity), adjectives, or a level of specificity that makes values non-applicable or in-conflict, companies like Atlassian keep it simple, clear, and avoid confusion.

Open company, no bullshit

Build with heart and balance

Don’t #@!% the customer

Play, as a team

Be the change you seek

These statements give guidance that can be followed, consistently, without confusion. They feel reflective of a culture rather than aspirational. Best of all, they don’t require interpretation so they can be operationalized without explanation.

Issue: Values ignore context

My biggest beef with traditional organizational values is this one; values don’t take into account the rapidly changing landscape in which we live and work. Values are meant to be enduring and widely applicable across functions and scenarios, but that’s too much to ask. Even if we look at a company with comparatively well written values or a democratic and thoughtful creation process, we run into values created for a more static world.

Taking examples from the links above, there are times to grow the business and moments to stay on the plateau and ready ourselves for the next climb. Times when seeking diverse perspectives adds richness and others when shipping an MVP and letting the market give feedback is the better play. Moments to go deep and those when rigor is wasteful and good enough will do. Every detail doesn’t always count and sometimes working alone is the way to make big gains.

Context-driven choices will vary by day, team, and individual in the same org. A brief menu of behaviors just isn’t useful in most scenarios.

Instead: Replace values with Purpose + Even/Over statements

With an overarching purpose defined, most of us don’t need more than basic guardrails for prioritization and continuous steering.

Even/over statements identify which of two valuable things is more important for a defined period of time, usually a quarter or trimester. We recommend one to three statements, crafted by the group on the back of a retrospective. Even/overs can be behavioral or operational in nature and vary team to team. These statements empower teams and individuals to prioritize; they’re powerful because they force a choice.

The Ready’s even/overs for the first trimester were:

Feedback even over Harmony

Collaboration even over Focus

Impact even over Following the Plan

All six of the principles are important to us, but performance means trade-offs. And so, for a relatively short window in our organization’s lifespan, these are the trade-offs we’re making.

Values and the OS Canvas

At The Ready, we use the OS Canvas to help organizations understand the principles and practices that make up their “Operating System.” Organizational culture is what results from these principles and practices, not a list of attributes to be scripted and overlaid.

What an organization values will emerge from that culture and evolve over time, not the other way around. For companies with a strong purpose and ways of working, crafting values solves a problem they don’t have.

Individuals working in a system will adapt, align, and behave based on what their peers model and tolerate, not what’s written in a handbook or on a poster in the kitchen. If your organization has values gathering dust, know there are new ways to crack this nut. In challenging an old notion, we may find more modern, participatory, and iterative ideas for engaging our teams.


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