Slouching Toward Failure: 5 Reasons Organizations Lose Sight of Their Core Values

By Doug Maris

In working with clients on developing “Strategic Thinking” skills within an organization, there is a lot of attention on ensuring that every employee within the organization has “line of sight” from their respective role to the high-level mission and vision of the organization. The need for this connection is obvious . . . as most organizations struggle with the challenge of ensuring that the strategic direction cascades into the day-to-day decision making throughout the enterprise.

I suggest that it is equally, if not even more, important for every employee in the organization to have the same clarity and connection to the overarching corporate core values. These core values are intended to describe the desired behavior throughout the organization. After all, the gap between “what we say” and “how we act” has derailed many more companies than Enron (the poster-child for values disconnect, whose core values included “Communication, “Respect,” and “Integrity”).

Patrick Lencioni in the Harvard Business Review article “Make Your Values Mean Something” states that since Collins & Porras published Built to Last, and its compelling case to establish core operating values, “the values fad swept through corporate America like chicken pox through a kindergarten class. Today, 80% of the Fortune 100 tout their values publicly—values that too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically correct” (Lencioni).

While I am sure that there are many ways that organizations derail from their core values, my experience shows it is often due to the following reasons:

  1. Values are not explained – A CEO and the executive team may proudly articulate that “integrity” is a core value of our company (as most do). But what does “integrity” mean? How is this value defined in the real day-to-day operations of the company? What is the standard by which a company is defining “integrity”? Strong strategic thinking executives will on a regular basis communicate in clear terms what a core value means specifically to their organization. For example, the owner of a supermarket chain may need to remind her employees, that “integrity means we are honest with each other, our vendors, and our customers . . . regardless of the circumstance.”
  2. Values are not expected – In my experience, organizations often slouch away from their core values because the workforce is not held accountable to operating by the core values. If a nurse is fired on the spot (rather than quietly affirmed) for falsifying a medical record . . . a clear message is sent about the organization’s values. If an HR Director includes a comment regarding an employee’s exceptional adherence to collaboration (or any other core value), word will spread that values are expected in this organization.
  3. Values are not modeled – Every parent knows the success rate of telling a child “do as I say . . . not as I do.” Likewise for organizations. Values must be modeled by all leaders within the organization for workforce to understand that this is truly “how we behave” as an organization. The very point of articulating corporate core values is to provide a standard to guide behavior, in all circumstances and climates.
  4. Values are not integrated – Just as in strategic planning the enterprise-wide strategies and corporate objectives must cascade into tier 2 departments and business units, likewise the corporate values MUST flow down into each business unit as well. Leaders and managers throughout the organization must be held accountable to ensure that day-to-day operational decisions align with the overall corporate values.
  5. Values are not rewarded – Most leaders appreciate that “what gets measured, gets done.” Likewise, I would suggest “what gets rewarded, gets done.” Values can be deeply imbedded into a culture when leaders will take notice and affirm an employee for exhibiting the values. Affirming employees, publically and privately, up and down the org chart for modeling the stated values will begin to create a culture that these value statements are not merely for the website . . . but truly describe the desired behavior within our organization.

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