Many of us will have rolled our eyes when we’ve received an invitation to join our colleagues in a meeting room to discuss our values. Writing the same tired old tropes on a whiteboard or flip charts can seem like a waste of time. The values are written up at the end of the session, immortalized in a few documents, and promptly forgotten. It seems like a massive waste of time.
And, when done like this, it is.
There’s been no real thought about what matters to the organization, what it stands for, and what’s important. Instead, you’ve probably got a list of things that sound good but ring hollow.
However, when done correctly, a clearly stated set of values provides organizations with a clear Northstar at all times. You’ve codified your organizational DNA and operating principles, clearly stating how everyone in the organization should behave and the principles that you should adhere to.
I believe clearly stated values are some of the most powerful tools a business can have and, at Kith, we rate ourselves against our values each week. That way, we make sure we’re maintaining our standards, and we can catch ourselves quickly if things slip.
But it’s usually easy to do the right things when the sun is shining and you’re not under any pressure. Values really come into their own when things are complicated, confusing, and you aren’t sure what to do. When you’re facing a challenging issue, ethical quandary, or simply don’t know what to do next in a crisis, you can refer back to your values, and they’ll help guide you to the right solution.
Otherwise, you might find yourself tempted to do what’s easiest and take the path of least resistance. But doing what’s easiest in the moment is likely to cause problems later, particularly in a crisis. Remember, crises present you with a series of wicked problems with no clear answers. Hard though it is, you need to stick to your values and do what’s right: you need to make decisions that you’ll be comfortable with in the future.
Values Equal Authenticity
So your values are what will help you make the right decision when things are tough but living your values shows that you walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Living up to your stated values shows that you’re authentic and committed; you’re not just paying lip service to things that you think companies should say are important.
Two clear examples of this authenticity are Patagonia and Hobby Lobby. Both are very different and have very different sets of values but, no matter how you feel about the individual firms, their commitment to their values is evident. They live their values in everything they do, and both have even gone as far as getting into legal disputes with the U.S. government to fight for what is important to them.
Customers, partners, the public, and shareholders all see the authenticity of companies that live their values which, in turn, bolsters their reputation. Conversely, it’s also obvious when organizations are simply paying lip service to causes and their reputation will suffer accordingly. Moreover, these organizations have no bedrock set of ideas to guide them when trouble hits.
Conduct a Values Audit
So you need a set of values for your organization but make sure you are really living these values. Conduct a simple ‘values audit,’ starting by looking at whatever written values you have. Then, look at how people behave and, crucially, note the behaviors that are called out as particularly valuable or troublesome.
Now you can compare the two lists to see which values are being lived and those that are ignored. That will give you a list of your genuine ‘lived’ values, which you can review with your leadership and decide what you want to do.
Make no mistake, this is a challenging exercise, and it can bring up some uncomfortable truths, particularly where values aren’t being lived up to or are outdated. Nevertheless, the short-term pain pays off massively in the long term with a clear, robust set of values that you can use in good times and bad. In short, values give you clarity.