I’m about to turn 40. I’m way happier about that than I thought I would be when I was 25. Back then, I remember thinking that when I hit 40, I’d just walk into the sea. It seemed like it was such an old and depressing age. But now I’m here, and it’s great. And not in a “yeah, honestly it’s not that bad” kind of way either - it’s genuinely way better than being 25.
One of the reasons it’s so great is that over these 40 years of being alive, I’ve collected some people I like. Probably at least five of them (not to brag). I like these people. I mean they’re awful, obviously, but they’re my kind of awful. We align well. We like to rant about stuff, and we can disagree about that stuff without getting angry with each other. We have the same sense of humour, we find most humans confusing, we take risks, we have a moral compass we pay attention to, and we believe in working for the things we want and letting other people live however they want.
At no point in my life did I write a list of prerequisite values the people I love should have. When I met these people for the first time I didn’t immediately say to them “I have a dark sense of humour and cannot stand entitlement”. I have never actively told the people in my life who I am, what I value, or what I value in others. I’ve just been the person I am, they’ve been the people they are, and here we are: a group of people with the same values who share time with one another.
Just being who you are attracts people who have your values, and pushes away those that don’t. It’s incredibly simple. But instead of doing that, a lot of companies spend their time and energy on trying to define and document who they think they are or would like to be so everyone can just follow the process of being that way too. Sharing our values, that’s what the work is called. It typically looks something like this:
The company has started to grow rapidly. The leaders believe they have a company culture which they want to retain, so they set about the work needed to share their values. The only problem is, they don’t know what their values actually are. So they try to work them out. They get in a meeting room and they argue and agonise and say things like “I know this is frustrating, but it’s so important!”. After several attempts, they eventually agree on a list of values which is almost identical to the list of values every company has now, and then they round everyone up for a presentation where they say “Hey guys, these are our values, what do you think!?” and everyone sits there quietly not caring.
Eventually, crushed by the awkwardness of knowing that the leaders will be upset that nobody cares, someone will offer some vapid reassurance along the lines of “Yeah, I think these values really capture who we are” like an emotionally repressed uncle pretending he loves the terrible picture of a dog his nephew has just given him. Then everyone else will murmur half-hearted agreement hoping that will be the end of it, but it won’t be. There will be one person who wants to show how engaged he is by asking an unbearably small question about wording. Then the next thing you know, the three company pedants are holding everyone hostage with a conversation about whether the value should read “we treat each other with respect” or “we treat others with respect”, and everyone who just wants to get on with their work will silently soothe their rage by imagining the three of them falling down an infinite staircase.
Then finally, mercifully, the conversation will end, nothing will change, and everyone will go back to their desks and continue to behave exactly as they behaved before.
That’s sharing your values.
You know that person you meet who says “Basically, I’m the kind of person who…” before describing the kind of person they absolutely are not. They’re not telling you who they are, they’re telling you who they want you to perceive them to be. What they’re really saying is “Hey, I’m way too lazy to actually be this person, so can you just assume that I am without me doing anything please”.
That’s sharing your values.
Would you laugh if a comedian got on stage and just said “Hey everyone, I’m really funny” but didn’t tell any jokes?
That’s sharing your values.
Writing your values on the wall does not magically give you or anyone else those values. If you cheat on your partner and get caught, you can’t point at the sign on the wall that says “I’m always faithful” and hope that they’ll ignore the fact you’re obviously not. Nobody cares what you say you are, only what you actually are.
This not me saying that having values isn’t important. It obviously is because all the companies most of us are trying to emulate have them. But the sharing our values piece of work on it’s own isn’t the answer. When we just tell people the values we think we should have but don’t actually live by them, we’re cargo culting. We’re building the runway thinking that’s all we need to do to make the planes arrive.
When you look at the companies you admire and see that they all have values, it’s natural to think “Oh ok, so we need to get some of those too”. But the output you’re looking at - the list of values - that’s an output of having them in the first place. It has having them in the first place that made these companies successful, not writing them down.
Before he died, Louis C. K. once said “I have a bunch of values, and I live my life by none of them”. That feels like so many companies I’ve worked for.
I have worked for several companies while they were carrying out the sharing our values work, and what they produced just wasn’t authentic. Their behaviours didn’t match up at all. The “values” they produced were actually just guiderails to try to make the employees behave in a way the leaders couldn’t be bothered to behave themselves.
When you have values you live by, people who also have those values will respond to you and be inspired by you. I worshipped Muhammed Ali when I was a kid, not for his boxing, but for who he was. If he ever wrote a list of his values, I’ve never seen it. But I know what they were. I know the values he lived by and that I was inspired by. I believe if you took a thousand people who followed his life and asked them to write down his values, we’d all produce a pretty similar list, even though he never told us what they were.
It comes down to something simple; you should have values, but you are going to have to communicate them through your actions. Telling everyone what they are isn’t enough. Carry out your work based on the values you have, and the rest will take care of itself. If you treat people with respect, you will attract and retain people who value treating others with respect. If you encourage creativity, you will attract and retain creative people. If you value cut-throat competition and you make work competitive, then people who aren’t competitive will leave and people who are competitive will thrive. But if you just tell people what you want them to be without actually being it yourself, it won’t work. If you want to be something, get on with being it. The people who feel the same way will come along with you.
I’m pretty sure in the colosseum they didn’t have posters up everywhere that said “We try not to get brutally killed with swords”. Everyone probably just picked up on the vibe.
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