The human brain is a very busy organism. According to the Cleveland Clinic, each of us has an average of 60,000 thoughts a day. That’s roughly one for every second we’re awake. This volume and the depth of our thinking is a big part of what makes us human, distinguishing us from all other living creatures on the planet. A large percentage of those 60,000 thoughts are either repeated from day-to-day, or they’re seemingly random, unimportant information — ideas or connections that quickly pop in and out of our consciousness. We’re hardwired to pay little heed to the vast majority of these thoughts because most of them aren’t critical to our survival. Indeed, to treat all thoughts equally would ultimately make us into frenetic, frustrated fools incapable of caring for ourselves or our loved ones. It’s in mankind's best interest to prioritize those thoughts related to our well-being and each of our core interests. It’s how we’ve been able to spread like a carpet across the Earth.
So we prioritize and focus on those things we hold as having the most importance within the greater behavioral framework. This is what we mean when we talk about our values, the conscious and subconscious guiding principles of our choices and actions. We actually do the things we think we have the greatest need for, or have the greatest desire to do, depending where we might see ourselves at that specific stage in our life. Referencing Maslow’s Hierarchy in the following example, while we might think about creating a widget that does X, we will only be spurred to act upon that thought if we place a relatively large amount of value on some aspect of it. We might prioritize the potential monetary gain that could be derived by creating X if we’re focused on basic needs like food and shelter, or the sense of security that can be gained by having money in the bank. We might prioritize psychological needs like the feeling of accomplishment or the satisfaction of close partnerships associated with creating X. Or, if we feel like our basic physiological and psychological needs are already satisfied, we may prioritize the self-fulfilling process or the sense of achieving our potential we might derive from our action. If X doesn’t satisfy any of the above, it’s more than likely that X won’t get done.
Somewhat ironically, almost every organization in the world has given some thought to corporate values — those aspects of a larger behavioral code that the company prioritizes. This usually manifests as four words and their definitions living deep on a website About page or in the HR manual. They’re a nice place to visit but very few see the reasons to live there. This lack of priority could be the result of how those words are selected (a navel-gazing marketing exercise), or the reasons they were selected in the first place (everybody seems to do it). More often than not, they exist as a cursory stab at prioritizing a few sentiments that could maybe serve as a general guide for employee ethics or customer interactions. Maybe.
They could be so much more. They should be so much more.
A thoughtful, clearly articulated values hierarchy can serve to efficiently improve everything from the strength of internal teams to brand positioning to product offering to communications strategy. Made explicit, what a company’s leadership truly believes is important (here's ours) can reacquaint everyone up and down the chain with the fever-dream that gave birth to the enterprise, catalyze organizational culture, serve as a filter for decision-making across departments and, ultimately, make the company a compelling choice among a long list of competitors in a noisy marketplace. When you make clear what it is you stand for, you attract like-minded talent, advocates share your message and customers are attracted to your offering. In short, you build trust, and trust is the shortcut to the sale.
Now, we’re all in business, in part, to make a living, but saying to potential customers that you’re in business to simply make money isn’t a very compelling value proposition. Because those busy human brains we started out talking about also crave meaningful connections to people and organizations that satisfy a varied array of personal goals. Even if you’re selling a commodity and competing on price, customers want to be assured that you place value on basic business principles like quality and service. And the further your enterprise is from commodities, the more important communicating your values becomes. As author and thinker Raj Sisodia spoke about in his TED Talk on Conscious Capitalism, consumers today have access to more information than ever, a finer sense of right and wrong, and choose to do business with companies that demonstrate a higher level of care regarding how they impact people, society at large and the planet. He points out that in a study he conducted, these types of companies outperformed the market by a ratio of ten-to-one over a 15-year period. These are companies that authentically imbue their values set throughout all facets of their business. Put another way, their values are the genesis of their value.
So how can your organization realize the potential lying dormant on that About page or in that HR manual? First, audit the values set. Make sure the values you espouse are implicit to the ethos of the organization. They must be distilled from within. How do you come about them? Start with the right questions: What did the founders believe they could do so much better or so differently that compelled them to start up the business in the first place? What unique perspective does your company bring to the world? Why would a customer let you into his or her life? These aren’t only questions for leadership, they should be posed to people and partners at every level. Keep in mind that the goal here isn’t nailing down the USP, the goal is defining the fundamental beliefs that can give rise to the USP. Values first, then value.
Once this implicit values set is identified, you must do what it takes to make those values more explicit. Not consumer-facing, but alive within the walls and heads of everyone who represents the company. The good news is, just as we can train our brains to think in new and different ways, we can reorient company cultures to prioritize a set of values. Most effective HR operations can deploy training tactics to begin transmission of the values, but it is important that leadership demonstrates a commitment to keeping them alive. Here are just a few of many ways to make that happen:
• Codify authentic stories that ingrain the values into the company mythology
• Provide values assessment testing in order to identify strengths and weaknesses for more effective team building
• Keep the values set front and center during ideation and product development discussions
• Consistently and publicly reward employees who best demonstrate one of your values in practice
Whether you’re facing a company turnaround, a merger or acquisition of corporate cultures, a branding challenge or trying to get more out of your organization’s performance, don’t overlook the inherent value of values.