Why One-Word Organizational Values Fail

by Dora Wang on Jun 3, 2015 8:00:00 AM

Why One-Word Organizational Values Can FailOrganizational values have a tendency to lean toward the abstract, or even the touchy-feely — “Integrity,” “Be Good,” or other buzzwords and phrases. These can easily veer into the meaningless if they aren’t tied to something concrete. And there’s evidence showing that making more concrete values and aligning them with your company goals will help your employees be more productive toward achieving these goals.

According to the annual Globoforce Workforce Mood Tracker:

  • 65% of workers who could name their values say they had a strong grasp of company objectives, versus only 23% of say they didn’t know any

Help close the gap with your employees by making those values concrete, and it will be far easier for workers to live by them.

Why It Matters

In short, company values are worthless if employees don’t actually live by them. You can’t claim “integrity” if your workers don’t know how or why they can show integrity. Leaders must be able to concretely explain why the values are important and how every worker can help fulfill them — in simple, concise language. If you’re going to use value metaphors, make sure every employee explains the realistic, everyday meaning of that metaphor.

And if your employees do not see how their day-to-day work contributes to that big picture, managers already know this leads to a lack of motivation and a disengaged employee.

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When Abstract Values Fail

It’s not that one-word values are incorrect — it’s that the onus is on the company to ensure all employees understand the meaning behind them. “Integrity” isn’t just a random example of a company value; it’s pulled from a hugely famous corporation. Here’s a list of that company's self-stated corporate values:

  • Communication
  • Respect
  • Integrity
  • Excellence

On the surface they sound like respectable things to pride yourself on. The company behind these values? Enron. And surely you don’t forget the Enron scandal that lead to the largest bankruptcy in American history back in 2001. Clearly these four values — no matter how great they sound — didn’t actually mean anything. Of course this is an extreme example, but it underscores the need to back up one-word abstract values, to be transparent about their real-world implications.

The Winning Values Examples

On the other hand, there’s TOMS, the famous footwear and apparel company that will donate one pair of shoes to a global community in need for every pair of shoes a customer buys. Clearly the company could easily falter here and veer toward the more “touchy-feely” company values — “compassion,” for example — which may be hard to live up to. But TOMS keeps values goal-oriented while still remaining concise.

  • Give Sustainably. Give Responsibly
  • Giving Partnerships
  • Identify Communities That Need Shoes
  • Give Shoes That Fit
  • Help Our Shoes Have a Bigger Impact
  • Give Children Shoes As They Grow
  • Welcome Feedback and Help Us Improve

You can imagine how this list of organizational values directly corresponds to concrete objectives that employees can follow through on in their day-to-day work life. The same goes for Whole Foods, with this list of goals:

  • Selling the highest quality natural and organic products available
  • Satisfying and delighting our customers
  • Supporting team member excellence and happiness
  • Creating wealth through profits and growth
  • Caring about our communities and our environment
  • Creating ongoing win-win partnerships with our suppliers
  • Promoting the health of our stakeholders through healthy eating education

You’ll see that all of these values relate to a clear example of how employees can work toward them. Could a company with organizational values like "Integrity" and "Respect" accomplish the same level of clarity? Of course — but its leaders are responsible for explaining and modeling those values so that they're more than a lofty buzzword.

No matter how many words are in your organizational values, they must be concrete and applicable to your company's daily operation. To truly get your employees aligned with company goals, make the values something they can clearly work for.

 

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This post was written by Dora Wang

Dora is an employee engagement researcher for TINYpulse and managing editor of TINYinstitute. Having grown up in Texas, she is now firmly settled in Seattle, where she spends her free time reading comic books, wrangling her three cats, and (of course) rooting for the Seahawks.

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