Making Your Business Values Valuable


It’s hard to be opposed to the idea of corporate values. What could be wrong with a company doing a quick off-site to develop a lofty and admirable values statement that can be distributed on posters and cute little wallet-sized laminated cards?

There’s a lot wrong with it, actually. These word-smithed values statements are pretty, yet irrelevant. I know the intention here is the opposite, but they end up being so high-level, and so obviously universally agreed upon, that they end up not helping me do my work any better. For values to be useful, they need to guide me in making decisions, or impact the way I behave to my colleagues or my customers, or help me focus my attention. Since when did a commitment to “integrity” or “excellence” actually change the way I do my job?

If we want to change this, then we need to change one letter. Change the “s” at the end of “values” with a “d.” Let’s focus less on values, and more on what is valued. This changes what we’re talking about from a noun to a verb, and that helps us bring this important topic back to the realm of actual workplace behavior (walk), rather than well-crafted brand position statements (talk).

Let’s focus less on values, and more on what is valued.

Human businesses must be clear on what is valued internally. What behaviors do we value, and why? How can we guide our employees better about what choices we want them to make? And I don’t mean that in a micro-managing kind of way. I mean getting crystal clear about what drives the success of the enterprise and being able to translate that so employees understand what behaviors and what results are truly valued. If you can make that clear to your employees, then you can toss out the lofty values statement. Just give them a guide to what is valued here, and then hold people accountable to that.

The companies that are lauded in the business press for strong cultures understand this point very well. Zappos gets attention for “delivering happiness,” but their core values are not actually about happiness. Their number one value is about giving customers a “WOW” experience, and instead of just declaring that value, they actually modify policies and procedures to make it happen. For example, they decentralize authority. If every individual perk or reward given to a customer needs to be approved by some manager, then it won’t happen, so they give their call center employees more authority. They can upgrade an account or offer free shipping. They even let them stay on the phone as long as they think they need to, which is not a “best practice” for efficiency in the call center world. In order to live up to their values, they had to become more decentralized.

So agreeing on high-level values is actually kind of easy. But getting clear on what is truly valued, and then integrating that with your business processes—actually embedding it in your culture—that is hard work. This is where the rubber meets the road in developing a human business. I am one of many people that has been writing about things like becoming more customer-centric, or embracing social media, or unleashing more innovation in businesses. This is what human business is all about. But what kind of culture do you need to make that happen? Want to be customer-centric? Great, but you’ll have to decentralize your culture and become more open and transparent. Want to make your business more “social?” Cool, but you’ll have to learn to be okay with failure and experiment more. Want innovation? Well, you’ll have to build a culture where people can collaborate across silo lines, which requires being very good at inclusion. In short, human businesses don’t create cultures that look good on paper; they create cultures that make what is valued really come alive.

Human businesses don’t create cultures that look good on paper; they create cultures that make what is valued really come alive.

In my recent Snippet, Culture that Works, I break down culture and culture change into about 10,000 words, because being able to work on and shift culture has become a core competency for human businesses. We can’t settle for excuses any more. I don’t want to hear that it’s too hard or too messy, or that either your senior leaders or your workers “don’t get it.” We can change culture one process at time, and you can start it from just about any place in the hierarchy. Human business is rife with “values.” What we need is to figure out what is truly “valued” in human business, and integrate that into our cultures.


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Image credit- lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

  • Mark Fernandes


    Thank you for this exceptional post. Your point about linking values to workplace behaviors is critically important and one that helps values inform culture (how things get done around here) vs. being words that just hang on the wall. At Luck Companies we just celebrated the 11th year of our values journey and have learned lessons (some really tough) along the way. One of our breakthroughs a few years in was to identify and document specific behaviors for each of our four values that were to serve as evidence of our associates actually walking the talk. The values and corresponding behaviors were then embedded in performance reviews and leadership 360’s. Today we resource heavily the development of our leaders understanding self from the inside out, how this shows up in their behaviors, where these behaviors align (or not) with our values, and on-going development to enhance self-awareness and self-management around the above.
    Thanks again for the relevant post and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.

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  • Lisa Shelley

    Love this Jamie! The only values that matter are the ones that are demonstrated with action – lived. Starting with an assessment of what is ‘valued,’ forces the alignment between vision and reality, puts the conversation in the context of the behaviors necessary for change and positions you for lasting culture change. Thanks for sharing!

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