core values of the organization are a waste of time

Core Values of an organization – Are all the meetings, time, flip-chart paper, and boredom worth it?

When I began a recent contract, Human Resources told me, We have no core values, and that is tearing this company apart.” After holding 40+ one-on-one interviews and sitting through 55+ hours of meetings, I knew it had nothing to do with core values and more with the paternalistic and confusing messages sent by leadership.

In a meeting focused on identifying what current behaviors are working to enhance the company’s profit and what current behaviors are not working, I shared this quote below:

“First, you cannot ‘set’ organizational values; you can only discover them. Nor can you install new core values into people. Core values are not something people ‘buy in’ to.” – Jim Collins

Then we defined values.

Values = those things to which an individual will give priority or wants to do. Values are vectors which direct our actions. (Elliott Jaques)

Hoping to understand that organizational core values are not something superimposed by the organization, that adults have values, and that they are contextual.

What is hurting your organization is not a list of core values – it is the attempt to simplify human behavior into a checkbox of simplistic terms.

The 1950’s workforce with a commitment to and from an employer for 50+ years, conjoined in a codependent relationship, no longer exists. The concept of a stable value-based organization falls apart when one partner in the relationship cannot be with you in sickness and health, richer and poorer, ‘till death do you part. The lack of living to the values happens from the current work context and, generally, not out of maliciousness.

“The present-day uncertainty is a powerful individualizing force. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic value” – Zygmunt Bauman

When core values are things that individuals prioritize, and organizations create a trust-repelling structure due to the premise that values help the company, not the individual, how can a leadership team make a difference?

The answer is not more values or simplistic workshops. The best response is to treat adults like adults and develop an environment with contextual boundaries that they speak about within the organization. A way to promote this conversation about values is a process called ‘Continuum Mapping.’

How continuum core values discussions happen

With this team, we determined a series of important decisions. We used the Core Values Continuum below in the following manner:

  1. Write down the issue.
  2. Write down who (one person) is accountable for the work and output from this issue.
  3. Using the values continuum, place a circle to mark where you feel this issue best fits
  4. Everyone share where you chose, and offer evidence for your choice
  5. The accountable person asks the team some questions.
  6. The team coaches the accountable person.
  7. The accountable person makes decisions and direction agreements.
  8. We meet at an agreed-upon time in the future to see what happens.

Integrated Leadership Model (Browne 2008)

Task <———————-> Person

Flexible <——————> Dogmatic

De-centralized <———> Centralized

Rewards <—————–> Punishment

The means <—————> The ends

Structured <—————> Organic

By removing the false constraint that universal values apply to the organization and understanding that context plus the person will cause a rise or fall in trust, the organization can develop a system where people add value by attracting trust and using their judgment; which is a value that most of us make a priority.