No Copy-pasting or Koans: 9 Traps of Value Development

Have you ever tried to play a game without rules? That’s what it’s like if a company doesn’t recognize and showcase its own values.

Corporate values provide guidance for organizations in every possible situation. They are necessary for future planning and operations management. Moreover, they provide a clear understanding of how to work with clients and interact with colleagues. We at Indigo recruitment agency tried to find out which “traps” occur when developing values, and how to circumvent them.


Trap #1. Outsourcing values

Many consulting companies offer this service, but relying on a contractor to develop corporate values is like asking a neighbour to create rules for your family. It can be beneficial to engage consultants, as they can help with diagnostics and methodology of development, as well as equip the team with the necessary knowledge and suggest how to improve group discussions. Yet it is important to choose the company’s direction independently, based on one’s current and future vision. Needless to say, value development is just the first step; the journey begins when the team starts to follow.

Trap #2. Copy-pasting values

If you are planning to establish values, it is possible to get ideas by doing some research and reading which values are used by the legendary players in your field. Some teams do this: they peruse a few dozen values, then create their own list, by excluding those they don’t need and highlighting those that are similar. No one can become Google No 2, so it is important to find your own way, based on values that are dear to the founders and shared by the team.

Trap #3. Values made of clay

Even if one of a company’s values is flexibility, it is important to follow established guidelines, otherwise, this will work against you. If not followed by corresponding actions, empty declarations only annoy coworkers and clients. This is particularly true for C-level employees and their willingness to follow the rules. What’s the point in claiming innovation as a value, yet ignoring ideas of coworkers?

Values are especially useful in cases when you are doubtful about what to do. For instance, Netflix has Integrity as one of its values, which implies effective cooperation with people of different origins, as well as recognizing one’s own prejudices and working to eliminate them. Another practical aspect of this value is that management will intervene if one of the coworkers is feeling excluded.

Trap #4. We must have X number of values

Usually companies prioritize 4 to 6 values, an optimal number to clarify their vision of working principles while not confusing their employees. However, it doesn’t make sense to make up values just to meet an arbitrary number, like references for a college essay. Values must reflect your true intentions and beliefs. It is also silly to limit yourself to a certain number of values. For example, Facebook has 5 values, while Netflix has 10.

Trap #5. Values are to be be hung on the wall

or published on the website with a link sent to employees. This list will soon be covered by dust. Values only work if they are reflected everywhere, from global decisions to daily policy. For example, if Zappos has ‘trust’ and ‘honest relationships’ as its values, then the company must be ready to demonstrate it in all its actions, from experiments with holacracy to free access to alcohol in coffee areas. If a company claims that “Our coworkers treat the business as their own” among their values, they better be ready to share both responsibilities and decision-making, along with the rewards, with their employees.

Trap #6. Values-koans

This happens when values sound as beautiful as Japanese riddles, but they are equally vague. To be memorable, values must be formulated simply but meaningfully. They should be clear and concise, and must not be ambiguous. For instance, one of values chosen by Facebook is “Be bold.” This is to say that “Building great things means taking risks.” Another one is “Move fast,” meaning: ‘Move fast and break things.’ The idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough. Since values manifest themselves in concrete actions, it is  important to explain each one of them and provide examples of actions which showcase the value.

Trap #7. Values hold employees back

If you work with people, understanding corporate values will help you in all stages of work. First, values can help you find people who resonate with you on a philosophical level, significantly increasing the chances of successful collaboration. Second, they serve as important guidelines for coworkers, clarifying how to behave with clients and colleagues. This is a corporate version of “If you don’t know what to do, live by the law.” Values provide a basis for corporate culture and working arrangements for everything from employment, career development and remuneration to exit interviews. This is something that unites all team members, from top managers to python developers.

Trap #8. Values can be imposed top-down

Every company begins with its founder. But can one simply state that beginning Monday, everyone will work in accordance with values like responsibility, honesty and commitment to excellence? If there are three people on a team, working in someone’s kitchen, it’s relatively easy to agree with one another. However, if the company has grown and reached a certain stage of development, the team has to be engaged in the discussion of values. It is much easier to act in accordance with the rules you helped construct.

Trap #9. It is enough to announce values

Again, no. It is more important to discuss and visualize values in the office space, analyze cases which showcase a certain principle, and discuss them. Be sure to apply them across the board. For instance, include the list in job interview questions and help newcomers adapt to match your stated values.

It doesn’t matter if your values are written or not. They exist anyway, and people will work based on them. If you have a mature team, they don’t have to be able to recite the values  by heart. They are in the blood of coworkers and should be expressed through their actions, even unconsciously. You do not want a group of people playing by their own rules. Values don’t have to limit company’s flexibility. In fact, it is necessary to consciously choose them, elucidate them, then make them common guidelines.

Author: Katya Mayevskaya