Are Values Back in Vogue? Eight Reasons Companies Are Rejecting Cynicism

If your organization’s “official” values are little more than material for water cooler ridicule, it’s time to rethink them. Here are some of the many rewards of identifying—and living by—a strong set of core values. 

In an age when news headlines trumpet story after story of fiscal mismanagement, unchecked greed, massive bankruptcies, and rampant downsizing, it’s hard to believe there’s any good news about the business world. Indeed, it’s almost impossible not to conclude that our nation’s decision makers have lost their way. But despite the turmoil that’s recently rocked Corporate America—or perhaps because of it—a growing number of companies are suddenly remembering who they are.

That’s right. There’s a movement afoot in the corporate world to get back to the basics of good business.

It’s a definite trend. Leaders are seeing that consistently putting short-term results and performance measures over long-term adherence to corporate purpose and values just doesn’t work. It eventually backfires.

What does work is identifying a set of values and making sure everyone lives by them—no matter what.

As a former officer in the U.S. Navy and a leader in the business world for over 25 years, I live the lessons I impart in my new book, The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9727323-5-2, $24.95). Indeed, a commitment to a strong set of values is one of the driving principles my leadership consulting firm teaches clients. 

Written in the form of an easy-to-read story, my book invites readers to walk alongside Guy Cedrick, a young marketing executive who finds his authority questioned and his priorities put to the test after his company undergoes a difficult merger.

In a new environment that only pays lip service to its stated values—Respect, Integrity, Communication, and Excellence—Guy must decide whether it’s more important to meet short-term deadlines at any cost or to maintain alignment and accountability, even if it means putting his own position on the line. The tactics he employs and the lessons he learns will resonate with leaders in all positions, and will spark a return to values in individuals and ultimately in entire organizations.

When companies truly put their values front and center—and when employees passionately espouse them rather than rolling their eyes and making snide comments—they’re more likely to survive economic hardship and change.

Ready to revitalize your company’s purpose, policies, and practices? Then read on to learn how embracing a set of core values can change the way your company runs.

It instills a sense of purpose that works like performance rocket fuel. It’s true: inner motivation based on strong values can do what no amount of professional development or department overhauls ever will. Think about it this way: during the Revolutionary War, the American colonists fought against a larger, better-equipped, and better-trained British military force. Why did they emerge victorious? Among other reasons, the colonists were a group of individuals who were motivated and unified by a shared cause, while the British (many of them mercenaries) were fighting a war in which they had no personal stake.

Just as those early American soldiers were spurred on by a desire for liberty and a love of their fledgling country, values-driven companies will push harder and farther than their counterparts that lack purpose. People crave and thrive on work that’s meaningful. They need a sense of purpose, a cause bigger than themselves. That’s a much more powerful motivator than money. If you give your organization purpose and meaning through core values, your employees will motivate themselves.

It creates consistency, which in turn breeds accountability. If you’ve ever worked at a company with no clear-cut values, you know how tough it is to hold people accountable. Employees frequently don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do—because they don’t know what that is. No one has ever made it clear that it’s more important to, say, meet a longtime customer’s request than to adhere to a strict budget. (Or, as is often the case, the rules change from day to day.) So when someone makes the wrong decision and ends up losing a customer—well, it’s pretty hard to hold him accountable.

Values make it clear exactly when the ball was dropped. It’s easier to hold people accountable when there’s a set of values-driven rules to hold them accountable to. And plus, for a variety of reasons, people in these kinds of organizations tend to hold themselves accountable.

Decision making is simplified. Everything comes down to: “This either supports our values or it doesn’t.” Establishing a set of core values cuts down on equivocation, excuses, and those “Yes, but…” rationalizations. True, life’s not all black and white, and sometimes it’s genuinely tough to know the right thing to do. Nevertheless, do your coworkers (or even you!) try to test boundaries, cut corners, or operate in an ethically fuzzy area simply because they can? If descriptions of Enron-like behaviors are too close for comfort, establishing—and sticking to—organizational values can be a game changer.

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to see leaders back-dating documents, say, or low-balling prices to get a step or two ahead. And in the short term, at least, those behaviors might be allowed or even condoned because of the results they produce. But we all know that in the end, they bring trouble. The good news is, if your organization’s decisions are guided first and foremost by values, people will be less tempted to make these kinds of “mistakes.” They’ll know exactly what the acceptable paths are, and if they want to stick around, they’ll follow them.

It greases the gears and boosts productivity. In much the same way as they simplify decision making, putting a set of core values in place will streamline your organization’s processes and procedures. If your team is comprised of 15 individuals, chances are, they have 15 different ways of communicating—and that can mean misunderstandings, lost time, and unnecessary work. However, that all changes if “communication” becomes a core value and everyone agrees on what it looks like in action.

How much time is lost in your organization just because people have different priorities and different ways of approaching tasks? If someone gave you an exact answer, I’m betting the number of minutes would shock you. Defining your values will increase efficiency and boost performance because everyone will be on the same page. Without alignment, though, focus is much harder to achieve.

It facilitates employee “ownership.” If at various points in your life you’ve rented an apartment and owned a home, you know that there’s a world of difference between the two. In an apartment, the buck rarely stops with the renter. There’s a building superintendent to fix what’s broken, and if the floors get a little scuffed, well…they’re not yours. But when you’re paying a mortgage, you’re responsible for anything that breaks—and you’re going to be a lot more diligent in terms of maintenance.

The same thing goes for your employees. If someone’s job is just a paycheck to him, he’ll take care of his responsibilities, but he won’t go beyond the call of duty. However, when employees feel that they have a personal stake in the company’s culture and future, they’ll work with more heart and soul. They’ll hold themselves accountable. They’ll genuinely care about where their organization is headed,
because they’re interested in its future and reputation and not just in collecting a paycheck.

It aligns and unifies people rather than dividing them. When a team’s only governing stricture is “This project needs to be done by next Tuesday,” there’s a lot of leeway as to the “how.” In such an environment, the self-centered, the power-hungry, the divas, and the bullies can all thrive. You know who these people are: they get the job done, but their methods are divisive, their attitudes are negative, and they’re really in it only for Number One. Are they really the ones you want propelling your organization?

When companies adopt core values, everyone has to agree on what they mean and how they’ll look in action. This sort of consensus puts everyone on an equal footing in a way that transcends position and hierarchy—it ensures mutual courtesy and respect. Essentially, core values facilitate a “One for All” mentality instead of a “One vs. All” mentality because hidden agendas and petty power plays can’t thrive.

People who don’t “fit” are immediately weeded out.
Despite a company’s best efforts to incorporate purpose and values into its culture, there will inevitably be dissenters who refuse to adjust their behaviors. Maybe it’s the hotshot designer who thinks his talent places him above the rules (like the “Dwight” character in Haley’s book) or the disparaging sales manager who derides your company’s values as “touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo.” The oft-painful bottom line is this: these individuals must go because their cynicism and uncooperativeness undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the organization as a whole.

Employees either buy into the core values or they don’t, and if they don’t, they have to leave. There’s no middle ground here—everyone has to shape up or ship out, because those who aren’t living the values are like poison. Their negativity and rule-breaking will inevitably disillusion others. The good news is, it usually doesn’t take long for these values-saboteurs to make themselves obvious. If you give them a chance to change their behaviors and they don’t take it, you’ve got to stick to your guns.

And along those lines, having a set of core values makes it easier to hire the right people. Even the world’s most talented project manager will still bring you down if he undermines values, so remember: Hire Values, Train Talent. Eventually, you’ll have a company in which everyone shares the same general motivations and values.

People respect their leaders and each other. Almost all of us have had at least one “bad boss” at some point or another—and universally, it’s an experience we’d rather not repeat. So what exactly makes someone a “bad boss?” Most often, it’s that for whatever reason (playing favorites, poor communication, rudeness, a lack of integrity, etc.) he or she is not respected by team members. In other words, this isn’t someone to whom employees will ever lend their wholehearted support.

I can almost guarantee that when a company truly lives by its values, its leaders will be respected. Espoused values require leaders at all levels to be clear, consistent, credible, and constructive. Plus, because living by core values breeds trust, people know that their leaders—and indeed, all of their coworkers—have their best interests at heart. It creates a work environment of mutual courtesy and respect.

In a turbulent environment of corporate fraud, scandal, and economic difficulty, it’s tempting to hide behind a shield of cynicism when core values are mentioned. And I’ll be the first to admit that the process of identifying your organization’s core values and then reorganizing everyone around them isn’t easy. More than that, even, the job of focusing and aligning behaviors with values never ends.

Let me be clear, though—putting values over profit, numbers, and results is worth it. Alignment and accountability can never be overrated, and they’ll see you through to the end.

Finding True North: Five Steps to Creating a Core Values Compass That Works!
Excerpted from The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9727323-5-2, $24.95), by Dennis Haley

Organizations that are healthy and effective in the long term are organized around and guided by a set of core values. Of course, these values won’t write themselves! Here are five steps you can take to help point your own organization in a positive direction:

Ask your colleagues: What do you want this company to look like? The first step in building a core values compass is, of course, identifying what those values are! Don’t start by racking your brain for words that will sound nice on paper, though. Ask each of your fellow organizational leaders to think about what their fundamental expectations are for workplace behavior. Then describe how members of the organization should operate on a daily basis, both in their outward behavior and in their internal decision making processes.

Comb through and narrow down the answers. Once each of your organization’s leaders has had time to think about it, come together and discuss each person’s list. Chances are, you’ll have a significant amount of overlap. Through ongoing discussion, examine the most common expectations and continue to narrow the list down. Your goal is to hash out which of the proposed values most closely reside at your organization’s ideological core. (That’s not to say that the values that don’t make the cut aren’t important, though!) In general, the most effective lists are short and contain three to five values.

Translate these values into behaviors you can get your hands around. After a consensus has been reached as to what your core values are, you need to describe each one more fully in terms of outward behavior. Along with your fellow leaders, discuss what an outside observer would see happening at your organization if everyone’s actions and decisions were in line with its values. This will leave no room for interpretational misunderstandings. For example, if “integrity” is one of your values, it might be manifested as not making false promises and keeping those that are made as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Figure out where a “course change” is in order. Creating a list of core values can be exciting and refreshing; however, translating them from paper to people can be significantly more difficult and uncomfortable. Your organization’s leaders need to consider which of its policies and common practices are inconsistent with the newly identified core values, and then determine what needs to be done to reconcile them. This step might not be popular. It may involve policy changes and overhauling processes…and it may also mean identifying individuals who will not or cannot uphold your values.

Now, settle in for the long haul. Core values aren’t transient—they’re solid, and they’re enduring. No matter how much your organization’s products or services change in the next 10 years, no matter how the office is renovated, and no matter who is at the helm, your values will remain the same. To ensure that they remain at the heart of all purposes, policies, and practices, assign an individual small group of people in the senior leadership team to be accountable for each value.

About the Book:
The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9727323-5-2, $24.95) is available in bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers.

About the Author:
Dennis Haley had more than 30 years of experience studying and practicing leadership before founding Academy Leadership ( A 1967 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Dennis served on the USS Long Beach (CGN9) as a nuclear engineer. Following a tour of duty in Vietnam, Dennis returned to Pennsylvania and joined the family business, eventually transforming it from a five-man operation to a multi-million dollar HVAC company with 40,000 customers. When the company was sold to a public utility in 1997, he turned his leadership initiatives towards helping others to become successful leaders, holding senior positions in the business world.

Dennis founded Academy Leadership based on the methods used by the Naval Academy and West Point leadership development programs. He combined these strategies with today’s successful corporate philosophies to create the Lead2Succeed™ process that builds leaders who energize people, effectively communicate organizational goals, and instill smart work strategies throughout the company to achieve tangible results.

He is the coauthor of The Leader’s Compass, 2nd Edition: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Key to Success, which is being used by many Fortune 500 companies and academic institutions across the country. He is also the author of The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture and the coauthor of The Corporate Compass, 2nd Edition: Providing Focus and Alignment to Stay the Course. Dennis is an adjunct professor at Villanova University in the Leadership Studies Program and developed their online leadership course, Strategic Organizational Leadership.