Corporate Values

If you glance at a dozen organizations’ corporate values statements you will see a lot of the same words: integrity, honesty, passion, creativity, excellence, caring. They are fine words, all of them. Who can argue against integrity, or take a stand against passion? But they are just ink on a 3 x 5 card handed out to new hires unless organizations actively wrestle with what integrity or passion looks like at work.

Check that. It isn’t that organizations need to wrestle with what integrity or passion looks like at work, but that we need to wrestle with it. We as in you and I, the managers and the receptionists, the accountants and the officers, the admins and the directors. The words have no meaning unless we give them meaning.

Our organization has a values statement with four stated values, all very sincerely held: passion, integrity, resourcefulness, and caring. We talk about the values in new-hire presentations, and yes, we hand them out on cards for people to pin on their cork boards. But what, exactly, does it look like to have passion at work?

(I am now imagining the lurid cover of a bodice ripper, which probably isn’t the kind of passion that is going to lead to great program outcomes, or work life balance.)

So if passion at work isn’t X rated, what is it? I’d suggest it isn’t something I should define here by myself behind my computer screen, but that we should talk about in groups, probably with beverages. Imagine we have done that, and I am now standing in front of a group with my rustling sheet of flip chart paper covered with colored sticky notes. What would it say?

Passion at work is when…

  • Someone goes running down the hall to their boss’ office and breathlessly waves a sheet of paper in his face saying “the data are in! Guess what!”
  • Two colleagues lean over the conference room table arguing heatedly about whether to use the Extended Parallel Processing Model or Ideation as the theoretical framework for the new radio drama.
  • The wheels of bureaucracy get stuck, and an administrator spends countless patient hours calling, emailing, cajoling, to get a payment made so the show can go on (literally).

We could do the same for integrity, resourcefulness, and caring: we could imagine situations, role play, discuss, laugh. What do these words mean to us? What do we look like in relationship to each other when we live them out?

Why, exactly, should we do such a thing? Why bother? Will our work lives look any better if we’ve hashed out the meaning of caring at work? I actually think they will. Because caring at work doesn’t mean putting on your nice face and refraining from saying snarky things in the hallway. It means telling your staff to leave when the day is done, and leaving yourself. It means not sighing deeply when your colleague tells you they’ll be out for another doctor’s appointment (during proposal season). It means asking the quiet dude if he’d like to work with you on the new assignment, even though he was too shy to ask. And it means telling your boss when she’s said something that confuses or hurts you.

It would be easy to roll our eyes at corporate values statements. But I think we can do better: I think we can construct our own meaning for them, and live them out.

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