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How I stopped worrying and started to love the company values


Just after I started a job in an oil company I was told that the company values counted equally as much as my deliverables at the performance reviews. I thought it was insane. Why would mumbo jumbo values have the same importance as my hard work? Is this some kind of kindergarten?

If I were to take them at the word, it would warrant that I spent 50% of my time on the values!

But I didn’t see any of my colleagues doing it, or talking about it. Nobody was doing “value work”.

By a combination of spite, duty and curiosity. Mostly spite. I undertook a personal initiative to ramp up my focus on the company values.

A story about Benjamin Franklin came to my mind. He was a pioneer in life hacking. In his youth he designed a system for living up to his 13 virtues. He used the system throughout his life. One of the things he did was to evaluate himself every evening on the virtues (e.g. temperance, humility, order, cleanliness, silence, chastity, industry, ...). In his autobiography he attributes a lot of his success to his daily practice of reflecting on his virtues.

I was inspired to use his method on the company values. My employer had four core values, and each value had a handful of practices. A total 19 items on my list.

E.g. for the value “Hands on” one of the practices was “challenges established truth”. The value “Caring” had “contributes to a good working environment”. So the list of the 19 evaluation criteria was fairly concrete.

Each time Benjamin Franklin caught himself violating one of his virtues he would make a tally in a booklet. But I live in the future, so I made a spreadsheet for tracking my adherence to the company values and practices.

The routine I adopted was to read the values and the practices each morning. And at the end of the workday, I evaluated and scored myself on a scale of 1-5 on each of the items on the list.

Another thing I did was to include a value in the password for the computer at work. E.g “Courageous1234January”. So that each time I logged in I was reminded of a value (until I got numb). The IT-department at the company enforced password change every 3 months, so that gave m e a new value to focus on each quarter.

The third thing I did was to memorise the company values with a technique called “method of loci”. A technique invented by the ancient Greeks to memorise everything from poems to lists. It works by imagining a mnemonic representing each item on the list, and mentally placing them on a well known location (therefore the name "loci"). I made mnemonics for each of the 19 practices, and memorised them at prominent locations in the office building. This way I could review the company values while I was biking to work.

What happened.

When I first heard about the values, I was disenchanted. I thought values were mumbo jumbo nonsense. But after a while of daily self evaluation and affirming the values, I started to like them, perhaps I would go so far as to use the L-word.

I think the daily focus on values improved me as a person, and employee. If I scored myself low (1 or 2) on an evaluation criterion for consecutive days, I started to think how I could improve. What action/initiative could I do the next day?

For example, when evaluating myself on “contributes to a positive work environment”, I didn’t feel I contributed much, compared to some of my extroverted colleagues, so I scored myself low. But it felt unsatisfactory. Facing the harsh reality of a low score is painful. It made me think. The least thing I could do was to attend the Friday cake gatherings. And the ball started rolling.

It is well known that what is measured gets managed. So it should be no surprise that the act of daily self evaluation made me more value-aware. And perhaps more “valuable” (pun intended)?

However a more profound change was that I started to use the values as a part of my decisions. Since I had memorised the values, I knew them very well. From time to time when a situation arose with several options to choose from, I would think about how to comply with the values and let the values guide the decision.

For instance when deliberating on whether to discuss some concerns with an industry partner, the value “openness” gave some guidance. I was thinking what would it take in this situation for me to score myself at level 5?

I guess part of it was driven by my desire to be able to write a high score in the excel sheet at the end of the work day.

After a while it dawned on me that I could use the values to my own benefit. There was one core practice that I in particular came to like very much - “Challenges established truths”. I felt that this one gave me a green light to experiment with developing new software at my work. It allowed me to test wild ideas and score high on “courageous”.

Many years after having left that oil-company, I believe that company values are very important. They can shape the operation of the company. The challenge for companies is to create awareness in the organization. Having them printed on the access card and evaluated once a year during the performance review will not saturate the minds of the workforce.