Do Corporate Values Limit Us?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big advocate for defining our culture in terms of the behaviors we want to see, rather than simply articulating the values we believe in. Behaviors are clearer and more actionable, and they’re easier to teach, coach, and provide feedback on. There are two primary methods for describing behaviors and I’d like to use this blog to compare them.

Two methods

The first method is what I often call the Cleveland Airport Method, because it’s based on a poster I once saw in that airport. In this method, we identify our core values, and then for each value, we make a list of the corresponding behaviors that describe how we live to that value. For example, if one of our values is “Integrity,” we would list the specific behaviors that we do to demonstrate integrity. So if we had 5 or 6 core values, we might have 3-5 behaviors for each one that describe what that value looks like in action.

The second approach is to bypass the core values and simply make a list of the behaviors you want to see present in your organization. These might be behaviors like “Honor commitments,” “Do it right the first time,” “Take ownership” or “Practice blameless problem-solving.” In this method, the behaviors stand on their own and aren’t linked in any way to particular core values.

While both methods can work, my experience is that the 2nd method is ultimately far more effective. Let me explain why.

A constraint in our thinking

In the Cleveland Airport Method, we’re introducing a filter or a constraint into our thinking as we ponder the behaviors that are most important to us. In other words, we limit our thinking to only those behaviors that fall inside the box of our stated values. The drawing to the right illustrates this notion.

But here’s the issue: there are likely to be important behaviors that you want to see in your organization that fall outside the value boxes, and you would never even consider them if you limited your thinking to only those actions that tied directly to your values. In the 2nd method, we’re unfettered by the construct of our values list, and we’re free to consider any and all behaviors we think are important to our success.

A concrete example

Let me give you a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. In my former company, RSI, we had a Fundamental we taught called “Communicate to be understood.” We were in the insurance business and far too often I saw people using technical or industry jargon in their speaking and writing, oblivious to the fact that others might not understand. I wanted our people to be ultra-sensitive to their audience and to speak and write using the simplest possible explanations. This was an important behavior for us.

Which value would that fall under? I honestly had no idea, and candidly, I didn’t care. I only knew that I wanted our people to do it. And had I listed my values first, and then wrote the behaviors that fit inside those boxes, would I ever have come up with “Communicate to be understood?” I doubt it.

In our Fundamentals process, we help teams to articulate the most important behaviors that drive success in their organization, regardless of how it may or may not relate to any particular value.   If you’d like to learn more about how this process can be used to help you create a truly high-performing culture, just give us a call or shoot us an e-mail. We’d be glad to help.

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