Are you wasting your time on values statements?

Recently, during an interview with Moustafa Hamwi for his show Passion Sundays, Moustafa asked me an important question: how valuable is it for a company to invest in helping employees find their own personal passions, not just business passions?

This is a great question! I think there is a huge value in helping employees find their personal passions! My friend Jim Kouzes, co-author with Barry Posner of The Leadership Challenge, did an important study. Jim found that there is a strong connection between values and engagement and that the key to engagement is not that the company has stated values. The key to engagement, Jim found, is that employees can live their own values while working at the company.

We all know “the corporate credo”. Companies have wasted millions of dollars and countless hours of employees’ time agonizing over the wording of statements that are inscribed on plaques and hung on walls. There is a clear assumption that people’s behavior will change because the pronouncements on plaques are “inspirational” or certain words “integrate our strategy and values.” There is an implicit hope that when people — especially managers — hear great words, they will start to exhibit great behavior.

Sometimes these words morph as people try to keep up with the latest trends in corporate-speak. A company may begin by striving for “customer satisfaction,” then advance to “total customer satisfaction,” and then finally reach the pinnacle of “customer delight.”

But this obsession with words belies one very large problem: There is almost no correlation between the words on the wall and the behavior of leaders. Every company wants “integrity,” “respect for people,” “quality,” “customer satisfaction,” “innovation,” and “return for shareholders.” Sometimes companies get creative and toss in something about “community” or “suppliers.” But since the big messages are all basically the same, the words quickly lose their real meaning to employees — if they had any in the first place.

Whether or not the company chooses the right words for the plaque on the wall is not the real question you need to ask when it comes to employee engagement. The real question is: Can your people live their own values every day? People who can live their own values while they are working at an organization are highly engaged. People who cannot live their values while working at an organization are often not engaged.


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