Anytime organizations are charting their futures, the topic of values comes up.  And when you bring it up, I can guarantee one thing: at least 40% of the room will give you that cynical look.

Really? Another values exercise?

Why is that?

Here’s my experience-based hypothesis: Most of the time, values are created through a fairly intellectual, sterile process that churns out motherhood and apple pie.  “We are customer focused” and “People are our greatest asset” may be intellectually true.  But too often, these sorts of values reveal the lowest common denominator and ooze political correctness.

Maybe the few people in the room understand them and believe them for the 90 minutes they’re talking about them.  But as soon as they’re on paper (and posters and websites) they lose that freshness and relevance that would make them useful.  They are what we wish we would be – or maybe what we want others to think we want to be.

Regardless, these sorts of values are often worse than useless.  They are endless sources of cynicism in our organizations and among the companies who interact with us.

My colleague Paul Krause used an ingenious method to get at much more authentic values in a recent engagement.  Rather than gathering a bunch of leaders in a room to discuss values, he wanted to discover the values that were already active in the organization.  So he conducted very brief interviews with a broad group of staff members and asked these simple questions.

  • What makes your proud of your organization?  What stories do you tell when you want to brag?
  • What makes a good hire?
  • What do you fight for?  What do people feel so strongly about that they work to ensure others behave in a certain way?
  • What derails a technically competent employee?
  • What do others say about your organization?
  • What attracted you here?

After identifying themes, he tested those themes through a simple survey.  Sure enough, he discovered the five real values that drove decision-making and a sense of connection among the associates.

Everyone has values. They just aren’t always the ones on the glossy posters. What are yours?