One of my favorite movies is “They Live” – starring the late (and definitely great) “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. The movie depicts a crumbling society wherein a small group of rebels form together with an understanding of a huge secret the larger populace is ignorant of – that the world has been taken over by aliens who look like us and have overtaken all forms of government and industry. Piper comes across a box of sunglasses, that when worn, show him the “true” world. People walking among us as aliens, and corporate billboards and commercials hawking soda or food are really subliminal mind control messages such as “Obey” and “Consume”. Scary stuff – but also one heck of a movie.
Why am I referencing an 80s movie that not only dates me (badly) but talks about such themes? Because this is what the current trend around companies “core values” feels like to me. These “core values” have been around for some time now, and I am certain were formed with good intention (mostly). They might come in different formats, like “culture codes” but at the end of the day, while they are a relatively new phenomena in this current form, they hearken back to a different time when the employer/employee relationship was very one sided. Back when people stayed at a company for their entire career and got the gold watch as an exit “thank you” with the retirement party and would never dare question upper management. Think the time of “personnel departments”. Why? Because this practice to me seems like a new, shiny and more digestible way of pushing corporate dogma and rules down employees’ throats. Instead of in times past with the employer having dress codes, mandatory hours and timed lunch breaks with punch cards, today it is “do as we do and think as we do” but with a dash of “we’re fun – and beer!”. Often times these core values are aspirational in nature, or based on the leadership teams’ views of how they wish their company to operate. All good in theory – except, more often than not, these values are created and administered top down and employees are forced to “get on board, or get out” or not even come on in the first place. Even in cases when they are employee generated, there will always be individuals in the company who will think or believe differently. Is that a bad thing? What about “innovation” or “disruption”?
I will admit – back in my true “HR” days I bought into this stuff big time. I cannot really pinpoint when I started to turn from this concept – but it is probably around the time it wasn’t “my job” to enforce it any more. There – I admit it. Even back when I had to push this stuff I never really believed it, and often felt like a “check the box” exercise to me. There isn’t two minutes that don’t go by in today’s business world that we don’t hear the word “innovate” or “disrupt” – heck these words can be found in 7 out of 10 company’s core values currently. Most companies recruiting departments actively seek out, give personality assessments for and market to candidates who will be “disruptive” and “innovate ” for them. Funny though, that we look for these attributes and actions in people, yet in the very same breath we ask them to conform. Yes – conform. I believe deeply that some of the best employees in any company or organization are indeed “disruptors” (although that word lately is like nails on a chalkboard to me) who challenge and push new ideas, processes or conventions. Companies desire this but only on their terms with these “core values”. We want individualism but not too much individualism. You must believe what I believe. Call me crazy, but anyone who is truly “innovative” or “disruptive” probably doesn’t want to have to forcefully prescribe to a belief system created by someone else.
I think a lot about why people choose to work where they work. I have said it before, but in today’s business climate candidates have more than just lots of options – they have information. Great talent today is in demand and people can choose where they work and who they work with, unlike in times past when the employer was definitely in the drivers seat. I think about a lot of the great people I have worked with over my career. A lot of the truly exceptional people would challenge process and how things were done and had ideas of how to do things better and differently. Typically, these people were highly individualistic, smart and creative people who said what was on their minds. I know in working with these folks that whenever they were forced to memorize some “corporate values” or hear some exec drone on about the latest “culture code” handbook they would roll their eyes, play along but secretly (for fear of losing their jobs) express their disdain. Sure – some great employees will buy in too – but to me that is more out of the desire to “fit in” and less about them believing so deeply in any core values. Look – I could be wrong – but I don’t think I am in this case. Ask any friend about their workplace. If they are happy, they are likely to talk about the work they are doing, their great teammates and the environment/culture they work in. One thing I can almost guarantee they will not reference are the “core values” and how much they believe in them.
I have had the pleasure of working in really big, really small and mid sized companies throughout my career. The one constant in all of them is that people just want to do their work and be rewarded for it while enjoying the people and their surroundings they work with and in. What they are not signing up for is a cult-like dogma being forced upon them. They just want to do their jobs and be a part of something special. “Something special” doesn’t mean a line of people at the kool-aid fountain, but rather being a part of a successful company where they can do their job with as little “higher up” interference as possible – as in individual with impact on a broader team or goal. Tell me anyone who willingly would ask for more rules, regulations and process to adhere to – and yet that is exactly what most core values are, just in a prettier package. Company culture is a tricky definition – it could be very different in different teams or geographies in a lot of cases. There are often baseline consistencies for sure too. Company culture is very hard to define for any company, but one thing company culture is not is a bunch of words on a fancy PowerPoint.
So Ed – what’s the alternative? I admittedly do not have the answer – but some potential suggestions. One is quite simply to not have “core values” at all, but rather shared company goals – keep it simple. Within these goals each employee would then be able to operate as an individual and do their part of the broader team to achieve these goals – and these goals should be tied to business related achievements – NOT “fluffy” BS. Another is for companies to really think about what they are aiming to achieve – and simply to ask themselves if by imposing shared “core values” on their employees will produce the desired effect they seek. I would love to see some data on this if any company has actually measured it (and not by “recognition awards” for values – that is still akin to what I reference above and simply enforcing them on their employees). I think of the movie “Office Space” where you see the signs of “Is this good for the company” or other soul crushing nonsense. We all laugh at this on the screen, but are we laughing because our realities are not too dissimilar? Look – I know this is a very touchy subject for most companies because “culture!” but I believe we are due for a “disruption” here too. People, by nature, want to think and act for themselves – especially “innovators” or “disruptors”. My advice? Let them. Yes – there needs to be some core structure in place (or does there? maybe another column) but let your talented employees be themselves – not part of a “borg” like collective. You just might get that innovation you were seeking.