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Plaques and platitudes can lead to paralysis

Walk down Mahogany Row in most corporate offices and you’ll be able to read a lot about what the organization stands for. You’ll likely see plaques that outline core values, posters that tout a commitment to the customer. Some examples:

Guiding Principles • Mission • Leadership model • Philosophy • Vision • Code of conduct • Our commitment • Goals • Roadmap to results • Credo • Value proposition • Culture statement • Who we are • Our responsibility

The work of Tom Peters and Bob Waterman three decades ago caused executives and leaders to take seriously the idea of using corporate values to intentionally drive culture. But in 2012, many organizations are discovering that when it comes to this particular task, more isn’t necessarily better, and that too much of a good thing is definitely not good.

Some recent unscientific research I conducted with a handful of organizations found that those surveyed offer an average of 23 instructions to their employees about what’s important, who they should aspire to be, and how they ought to behave. Look at your own organization. Count up all the points on all those corporate commandments. How many instructions are you working under? More importantly, how many can you really remember and implement at any given time?

Cognitive congestion

Well-meaning attempts to provide guidance, motivation, and pride to employees in many organizations are instead contributing to a kind of cognitive congestion.

Research suggests that seven is the magic number of things the mind can hold, juggle, and work with. Yet the average organization offers more than triple that in terms of its instructions to its employees, who are frequently overburdened and lacking in resources.

So, what happens?

  • Some employees actively blow it all off as “rah-rah” and “blah-blah” (to quote my friend Stan Slap).
  • Some employees gravitate toward a few items that resonate and let the others fall by the wayside.
  • Too many employees do nothing, paralyzed by too many directions about what to do and who to be.

Additionally, over time, many employees find themselves facing not only too many but competing directives. Perhaps it’s time for organizations to step back and look at their tenets and taglines with clear eyes, and then do a little house cleaning.

Less is more

The pressures, complexity, and pace of today’s workplace demand streamlining on all fronts, including with corporate values. Employees need a few consistent and compelling principles that will guide their behavior, decisions and interactions. And when all employees are demonstrating these few principles, suddenly the corporate culture becomes unmistakably clear — internally and externally.

Here’s a straightforward process to reconcile the rallying points within your organization:

  1. Collect all of the versions of corporate commandments that exist.
  2. Dissect them into their components, identifying individual elements and instructions.
  3. Create a comprehensive list.
  4. Identify who will have a voice in the process. The safest strategy is to engage only executives. Riskier — but also considerably more powerful — is to engage the entire organization.
  5. Apply a nominal group technique, asking those involved to “vote” for the three to five ideas that are most consistent with the organization — what it is and where it’s going. You may need to repeat this process a few times until the final set emerges.

Hold the presses

This streamlined set of guiding principles can be a powerful tool for clarifying your culture and for communicating with employees and customers alike. But remember that actions speak far louder than words, or posters, mugs and T-shirts. Instead of memorializing your shortlist on yet another poster, consider how to make sure it’s modeled by leaders and others. Consider how to help employees understand and embrace the essence of what’s most important in the organization. Consider how to take it off the wall and infuse it into every interaction. Only then will you see the real value in your corporate values.

This post originally appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership in December 2012.


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