Ever tried to walk in a straight line while blindfolded? Try it. You’ll fail. You’ll weave and stagger and eventually walk in circles.
But while you’re blindfolded, you’ll be totally convinced you’re walking in a straight line. Whenever you weave or shift or think you’re drifting off course, you’ll make small corrections that you feel sure are keeping you on course.
But of course the opposite happens. Those small corrections only take you farther off line—and when you take off your blindfold, you’re shocked by how far you’ve drifted from the path.
The same thing happens at work, especially when employees try to follow a theoretically clear set of company values that, in practice, are anything but clear.
For example, let’s pretend this is your company’s values statement:
We are totally committed to empowering our employees so they can achieve world-class standards of excellence while providing the highest quality products and the most dependable, responsive and cost-effective service to our customers.
Sounds impressive, right?
Absolutely—but since it’s filled with platitudes, not goals, in effect it means nothing. What does “highest quality” mean? What does “cost-effective” mean?
The statement sounds great, but it provides no value—or values—at all, and values are what keep you walking a straight line towards your goals.
Keep in mind “values” don’t have to only be ethical or moral principles; a value can be anything you feel is incredibly important or useful. So although honesty can certainly be a value, so can always meeting delivery dates, offering the lowest prices or returning all calls or e-mails within one hour. A value can be any standard you feel is critical to meet and maintain.
Here’s why your company needs core values:
Core values easily translate into specific goals
When your goals are measurable, you always know when you’re veering off course, and you can make the right corrections that keep you and your business moving forward on as straight a line as possible.
For example, take the word “responsive” in our hyperbolic values statement example above. What does “responsive” actually mean to you? What is the goal where responsiveness is concerned?
Your goal could be to resolve all complaints within 10 minutes. Or your goal could be to return all customer calls and emails within 30 minutes. Or maybe your goal could be that a technician will arrive at a customer’s site within four hours of an emergency service request. A goal isn’t a goal if you can’t measure that goal, so always turn platitudes like “responsive” or “dependable” or “proactive” into measurable targets.
Then your values actually mean something and help your employees become a team that shares and works towards the same purpose.
Core values make decision-making easier
When a company value is clear, the answers to even the most complex problems are also much clearer.
For example, say your company’s core value is to be the lowest-cost provider in your industry. Once that goal is established, most decisions are easy to make. Should you add staffing? Yes—but only if the additional employees create efficiencies that allow you to cut prices. Should you enter new territories? Yes—but only if the resulting economies of scale allow you to cut prices. Any idea that increases costs or reduces efficiency is an idea you won’t pursue because your values are clear.
Core values give employees the freedom to achieve goals
Establishing a procedure is certainly important, but if your core value is, like Zappos, to “Deliver WOW through service”, sometimes the best procedure is to ignore the rules when a customer has a problem. Clear core values give employees the latitude to make smart judgment calls, whether to resolve problems, meet the individual needs of customers or work together as a team.
Core values extend “what” into “why”
Employees know what to do. They’re trained and guided and mentored. They know their jobs; they know their tasks, their processes and their guidelines.
What many employees don’t know is why they do what they do.
Processes are great, but rolling out a process without explaining the underlying reasons for that process is a dictate—and no one likes dictates. Explaining the reasoning behind a process helps employees inform that process rather than simply be trapped by its constraints.
When employees understand why, they no longer simply follow—they also lead.
The bottom line: Great values statements don’t look like values statements. They look like concrete, measurable goals. They aren’t confusing. They don’t create gray areas. They don’t sound good on paper but become worthless in practice.
Most importantly, they go beyond what employees will do and explain why—and in so doing create a sense of purpose and a shared mission that truly drives the company forward.
Have you taken the time to make your company’s core values more understandable for employees? Share your thoughts in the comments below.