Why Your Company Needs Values, Not a Rulebook

Most companies these days have developed some form of values. Sometimes they’re printed on a wall, or maybe you put them on t-shirts and business cards. The problem can be that even as much as you try to promote them inside the business, they can still be forgotten.

That can be a problem because they are an important aspect to the employees that run your business.

When we think about systems inside a business, we typically picture IT, computer systems, and technology that allows people to do their work better and faster. But there are also systems that help make people consistently better at doing their jobs, like engaging with customers. We might call these standard operating procedures or SOPs. The idea here is to help define how people should act or react in different scenarios in a preplanned manner that is designed to get the best outcome.

A great example is McDonalds. If you run a McDonalds franchise, there are hundreds of SOPs that help you make decisions based on all the different scenarios you’re likely to encounter. It’s thanks to those SOPs that when you go into a McDonalds, whether that’s in San Francisco or Beijing or Amsterdam, your experience, and the food you eat will be remarkably similar. Trust me, I’ve sampled. When you have a define system like that, SOPs can be a very powerful system.

But what happens if you run a business where you could never write enough SOPs to cover every variable you might run into? Even if you SOP manual is the size of three dictionaries, you could never imagine every scenario. What do you do then?

This is where your values come into play.

Sure, if someone on the frontline of the business runs into a situation where they don’t know what to do, they might just bump it up the chain of command. But even then, the boss will likely use their own judgement to decide. And to make that decision, they need to rely on the values of the business.

What you do when the rulebook doesn’t apply.

Our values tell us how to make decisions collectively; a kind of North Star everyone inside the business can point to for direction.

That’s why your values are also a big part of the culture of the business and help shape how formal or informal it is; how flexible or rigid. When people begin to live the values of the business daily, it becomes the culture.

That’s why values are often aspirational–they paint a picture of how you want the company to act and operate.

But you must be realistic. We see examples all the time where companies say they have an impressive list of values. But they don’t walk the walk. A prime example is the company Enron who, infamously, had “integrity” as one of its values even as it manipulated energy markets to its benefit.

The truth is that when your business doesn’t live its values, people quickly learn that truth. If you say one of your values is integrity and people don’t act that way, it can result in real blowback to the reputation of your business.

So, maybe it’s time to take another look at the values of your business. See what’s printed on your business cards and ask yourself if that’s how your company is truly acting. If not, it might be time for a reboot because building and living a set of values everyone can believe in and aspire to will be a big part of the success of your business moving into the future.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.