Most large organizations have a list of values that the leadership team developed in an offsite. These espoused values, the aspirational ones placed on conference room walls, show up in the monthly company newsletter and are designed to guide decision-making for an organization, but often fall short of doing anything beyond creating cynicism in employees.

The challenges in turning espoused values into those used every day to guide the company are that, in many cases, some of the executive leadership team do not consistently behave in alignment with the values. And when that happens, employees point at the wall (silently, of course) and make a mental note that what the executives say they don’t mean. And that drives cynicism. And cynicism lowers employee engagement.

Another challenge arises when difficult decisions highlight how much a leader believes in the values. For instance, if integrity is a value and your best salesperson is stealing from the company, at least two possibilities run through your head. First, he’s my best salesperson and we cannot afford to lose him. Second, I’m not being consistent with our values if he remains employed here. This type of scenario is common for companies and acts as a litmus test for how strong the values in use are in your organization. They also act as an indicator of your strength as a leader. Whatever the decision, everyone will make a judgment on whether you are the guy that takes a committed stand for the values of the company and the type of culture you are leading or whether the words on the wall were not worth the paper on which you write them.

Setting values is a key step in building the type of culture you wish to create, but only if you are serious about taking actions consistent with them. If this is a tick-the-box exercise for you and your leaders, don’t do it. Run the business without publishing the values until you determine what is important to you and what you can consistently deliver in terms of leadership behaviors.


A checklist for building company values includes:

  1. Take an inventory of what you and your leadership team believe are values in use at your company.
  2. From that inventory, add examples of behaviors that the leaders consistently display.
  3. Make a separate list of behaviors you wish to see in your company, but don’t yet consistently demonstrate.
  4. Merge the values currently in use which have examples as evidence with the values you wish to see.
  5. Spend 30 minutes at each of your next three weekly meetings discussing the values, adding definitions for what these look like, and trying on the values in between meetings.
  6. At each of the meetings, spend time providing examples of how the values felt and what the reactions were from employees. Does the list of values feel authentic to the majority of the leaders? Do any of the values feel forced?
  7. For those values that feel authentic, adopt them and continue practicing them. Communicate them to other leaders and employees in whatever way is consistent with your practice and culture.
  8. For those values that feel forced, keep them off the list and continue to practice them. It is possible that they may begin to feel authentic over time at which point you can choose to edit the values in use list as you see fit.
  9. Although values in use are not carved in stone, there is power in having a consistent set of values over a period. If the values are authentic and create the desired culture, that consistency and persistence help build credibility and reliability in the eyes of employees.

Takeaway: Establishing a thoughtful and meaningful set of values in use is a powerful way to align your people, guide behaviors and create a culture of sustained high performance.