How can shared values be a bad thing?
Shared values are usually the definition of a match made in heaven. But it’s not so good if your organisation shares values with its nemesis. This happens a lot, most often when an organisation chooses to use single-word values.
I’m not a fan of single-word values. So many of them are straight out of Central Casting – innovation, collaboration, creativity, transparency, agility etc. Your heart sinks when you read them; another company going through the motions.
Your values are the genes that determine your culture. They should be uniquely meaningful. Most single words aren’t. Most single words are uncontroversial, bland, anodyne. They’re safe words that people write on sticky notes in brand strategy workshops. You can’t argue with them. And if you can’t argue with a value it’s probably a hygiene factor. Any business that doesn’t operate with integrity, any business that doesn’t do innovation, any business you can’t trust, any business that doesn’t embrace diversity, is going to find itself in trouble sooner or later.
It’s hard for a value to be uniquely meaningful if it comes as standard in all organisations. And this happens a lot with single-word values.
Occasionally, a single-word value jumps out at you. It’s not a usual suspect. It’s barbed. It’s quirky. Someone has clearly put some thought into it. It means something. It’s authentic. For example, I want to know more when Qualtrics says that one of its values is ‘scrappy‘.
Control, Magic, and Solidarity are the values of one of my clients – who shall remain nameless. We arrived at these values out of conversations with staff and customers. They’re interesting in isolation. They’re compelling in combination.
I use single words – Access, Adventure, Mutuality – as shorthand for the values I bring to my consultancy work. The longhand versions are better, and I always lead with these, but I made sure that the single words are not your usual suspects.
So there are exceptions. But you nearly always make life harder with single-word values.
You can qualify or explain a single-word value in a way that makes it mean something unique to your organisation. And your values can be different in combination even if they’re common or garden values in isolation.
But, if uniquely meaningful is the goal, choosing bland, single-word values as your starting point is a self-inflicted handicap. They are so broad and generic that you have to work hard to make them mean what you want them to mean for your organisation.
And you’ll inevitably share them with other organisations. Indeed, you might share values with organisations from which you’d rather distance yourself.
There are some cautionary examples of unfortunate shared values below. Some of these you really couldn’t make up.
Thank for reading. If you liked this, you might also find these posts interesting.