The Pain of Real Values

By Sandy Cummings | 12/23/2019

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unsplash-logoNathan Lemon

Early in my career, I was thinking of getting an MBA and attended an introductory lecture at Boston University. I don’t remember which professor gave it, but I’ve thought of his words often over the years: In the workplace, it’s better to not define your core values than to define them and not live up to them.

That rang so true to me. At the time, I was working for a company that printed its core values on everything – the first company I had worked for to do so. They were discussed frequently and embedded in our performance review system. I remember being so excited to work for a company with such integrity and focus, and then so equally disappointed when, over time, I observed the disconnect between those statements and the way people acted.

I changed jobs pretty quickly when I realized the statements weren’t there to guide behavior but to check a box. Maybe the original intention had been right, but the company somewhere along the way had stopped being diligent about living its values.

I wish I could say that was a unique experience. I’ve even helped write value statements, knowing full well that although I was capturing what the execs wanted to say, I wasn’t producing anything that accurately reflected what the company truly valued.

Patrick M. Lencioni, of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team fame (still one of the most eye-opening management books I’ve read), does an excellent job in a Harvard Business Review article explaining why core values are important yet how they often fail to become the “cultural cornerstones” that leaders hope they’ll be. His advice?

“If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.”

The point is that values, in their best form, communicate authentically who you are and what you believe in. Not everyone will fit in. Even if you’ve framed them yourself, you may struggle to adhere to them at certain times. And if you’ve done a good job of sharing them, as you should, your employees will notice when you fail.

Ursa Health has given a lot of thought to this topic over the years and took Lencioni’s advice to heart. Here’s what we value.

Do the harder thing.

We’re in this to have a meaningful impact on healthcare. That requires us to build products from which our customers derive authentic, long-term value. Value for us means successfully delivering not just what our customers ask for but what they truly need.

Embrace thoughtful failure in the service of continuous improvement.

Failure is an inevitable stop on the path to success. We have the courage to ask questions when we don’t understand something, admit when we don’t have an answer, voice and try new ideas, and be honest when they don’t work. And we act quickly to incorporate the lessons we learn along the way.

Prioritize a calm, respectful workplace.

Deep work requires us to be rested and have space to think, so we keep meetings to a minimum and our hours balanced. Treating our co-workers and customers with kindness and empathy avoids the crazy and keeps us focused on what matters.

Want to learn a little more about what makes us tick? We love what the folks at Basecamp wrote in their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. Maybe pick up a copy over the holidays and revolutionize the way you work in 2020.