In his important July 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “Make your values mean something,” Patrick Lencioni described how, in the 1990s, a “values fad swept through corporate America like chicken pox through a kindergarten class.” The well-meaning fad resulted, said Lencioni, in many Fortune 500 companies proclaiming values that “stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct.”

In the nearly 14 years since his HBR article, Lencioni’s illustrations and warnings have helped many companies shape their values lists, and his article is a must read. The challenge remains: How do you avoid creating a values set that is, to quote him yet again, “bland, toothless, or just plain dishonest”?

Here are two helpful guides.

Avoid feel-good fluff.

Identify values that can guide decisions when the going gets tough. Values statements aren’t about celebrating successes; they are about guiding choices. (Not that celebrating success is a bad thing, but it does not a Core Value make.) Steer clear of clichés that light the path in good times, but are meaningless when significant challenges arise.

Go beyond data.

Choose principles that will guide decisions in logically ambiguous situations—when there is not enough data, or enough time to gather and assess data. Or when the pros and cons lists seem to balance, requiring a judgment based not on data but on, well, values.

If you already have a list of corporate values, look at them carefully. Does the way they were implemented (or ignored) help explain company and individual behavior during tough challenges in your company’s past? Do they help explain what you did the last time you had to “shoot from the hip”?

If not, it may be time to revisit your values list with an eye to giving them some teeth!

by Levi Nieminen, Ph.D., Director of Research and Senior Consultant with Denison Consulting. This post is adapted from the article, “Values with Teeth.” Read the full article here 

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