Your core values define the behaviors you treasure and demand above all others. Investing time in defining them increases the likelihood they come to life and become part of everyone’s daily behaviors.
Lots of time is wasted by executives crafting bland, committee-driven ‘values statements.’ They hang in frames in beautiful calligraphy, and don’t mean a thing to employees. Real core values are best described by outlining three simple behaviors that define which behaviors are okay, and which are not. Assemble your executive team, and you’ll complete this exercise in about an hour.
List the Traits of Your Best Employee
Think of a real life employee. What is it about her that makes you and others love her performance? What are the qualities that make her so special? Is it her cleanliness or the way she treats her co-workers, or her productivity? Maybe it’s the passion she brings to her work or her accuracy and thoroughness. Write a list of these qualities, and be as specific as possible in your description.
Now ask yourself if the things you love about this person have wider application to your workforce. Are these the attitudes that many or perhaps all of your most successful employees share? If so, you have found one of your company’s core values.
Reflect on What Makes You Angry
You’ll know you’ve hit on a core value when the thought of someone violating it makes you angry. Think back to the times that you’ve felt angry at work over the last six months. Was your anger sparked because a core value was being violated? If so, your anger can be a major clue to finding what your core values are.
I learned this principle one hot summer afternoon from the management team of a very successful company as we tried to puzzle out the company’s right attitudes. We’d agreed on two, but still, something was missing, although we couldn’t put our finger on just what it was. As the afternoon wore on, the group was slowly going numb, so in desperation, I turned to one of the owners, and asked her, “When was the last time you got really mad at someone?”
Without hesitation, she described how she went on a tear with a leader over his treatment of one of his subordinates. “He had no respect, and I will not stand for that in this company,” she emphatically declared. Her passion around this issue was real and raw, and caused light bulbs to turn on all over the room. “Respect for all” became their final right attitude.
Look to your anger for clues about what your right attitudes are.
Identify the Attitudes That Are Currently Being Lived Out
You don’t make up core values out of thin air. They are behaviors that are already being lived out every day in your company. Your core values define what makes your culture special and unique. They aren’t aspirational; they’re living and real. You shouldn’t have to search far to find them because employees should be displaying them on a regular basis.
They’re one of the most important HR tools for your whole company. You will hire, onboard, evaluate, praise, and discipline based in large part on your core values.
Analyze the Values That Have Been Violated
Think of someone that you have let go in the past year or two. What offense did he commit that led to his termination? Was it a question of competence? Or was it something else?
If you have chemistry with someone, he “gets it.” He already shares your way of thinking, and he values what you and your team value. He just feels like a fit.
Skills can be taught for the most part, but it’s very difficult to teach values to people, because values represent what they really believe. The challenge is to find people who already share your values, not find people and then try to teach them to believe what you believe.
You can approach this dynamic from another direction. Ask yourself: “If a person was to repeatedly violate one of your core values, would you eventually fire him over it?” This is a pivotal question, because it forces you to ask what values are really important to you; which parts of your company culture you’re willing to defend, and which parts don’t matter as much to you. You know you’re serious if you’re willing to fire over it. If not, it’s probably not a value that’s critical to success for you.
Your commitment to firing over repeated “soft skill” violations transforms your core values from meaningless words into ideas that people believe in, commit to, and strive to live up to.
Agree on what your values are. Once you’ve tried them out for a few months, and everyone agrees that they are the right ones, carve them in stone and strive to embody them. Nothing is more important to your culture than leaders who “walk the talk.”
Trevor Throness is the author of The Power of People Skills: How to Eliminate 90% of Your HR Problems and Dramatically Increase Team and Company Morale and Performance (CLICK HERE to get your copy). He is a veteran business coach who specializes in working with growing businesses.
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