What even smart companies get wrong about core values

In his new book F, journalist Steven Levy recounts a time in 2009 when employees wanted to articulate what Facebook stood for. How did they describe it to potential hires, or for that matter to mom and dad? HR gathered employees in small groups to hash out the best descriptors. Out of this came four key values they presented to Mark Zuckerberg: . He liked those as internal guidelines, but asked for a fifth: , meant to capture Facebook’s impact on the world at large.

A decade later, most people only remember “move fast and break things” (a value the company later moved to abandon) — and at this point, as more of a damning criticism of Facebook. For that company, revisiting its old core values will now require a much larger overhaul — not just around obtaining a new slogan, but about all the ways it must apply newly stated values in every product, every program, every employee message and action — with a skeptical world watching its every move.

You stand for teamwork? Respect? Accountability? I mean — who doesn’t?

Developing your company values and mission statement can feel like a Dilbertian exercise: a bunch of earnest people in a too-long meeting whiteboarding and ranking inspirational words and phrases. It’s tough to come up with a handful of statements we really believe at our core — that aren’t just buzzwords — that everyone at the company can feel good about and live by, and most importantly, stand behind on bad days. As we’ve seen with Facebook, even some of the smartest companies have made mistakes when it comes to defining their values.

Here’s how to avoid falling into those traps.

A noun isn’t a value. Neither is a feel-good phrase.

Touting “transparency” or “trust” as core beliefs just doesn’t cut it (sorry, Salesforce). Airbnb’s “” also comes to mind. These approaches risk coming across as trite or disingenuous. Just how transparent can a company be? Sharing your financial statements when you’re a team of 10 may feel good, but you simply won’t be able to do that in the run-up to an IPO. And a feel-good phase is fun on the company T-shirt, but it probably can’t serve as your North Star. Core values should not lead anyone to conclude that yourcredo is “Do as we say, not as we do.” A better approach for a corporate mission is to articulate an idea (“empowering your business” or “stellar customer service” and (briefly!) elaborate on how that idea is core to virtually everything you make and do.

Core values should not lead anyone to conclude that your real credo is “Do as we say, not as we do.”

Avoid lowest common denominators

You stand for teamwork? Respect? Accountability? I mean, who doesn’t? Today we expect, if not demand, these qualities. It’s how companies are  to work. Would you do business with anyone who  foster teamwork? That about being accountable? Your values shouldn’t elicit a “duh!” reaction. One popular “duh!” value right now is mentioning “diversity and inclusion” (D&I) as core to your business existence. Please don’t misunderstand me: D&I, workplace parity, equality, fairness — these of utmost importance for every organization. But I’ve seen well-intentioned teams commit to diversity and inclusion as core values when, ahem, the team is 90% white, and the leadership is 100% white. They intend to change that, really they do — but until they take meaningful steps to show and not just tell, showing off a nice sound bite doesn’t help anyone (and in fact can hurt real efforts).

Don’t force “fun” into your values

By saying you value “fun,” you’re trying too hard to reassure your team about your intentions, but not necessarily your reality. Personally, I’d rather value good humor than fun. You need good humor for the awful but necessary tasks —but what happens during inevitable non-fun times like layoffs, product fails, bad earnings? It will not only be hard, but disingenuous to find on the worst days. This cautionary tale lays bare the problem with “fun” being paramount: People will often choose fun over the un-fun but necessary chores (discipline, process, results) that actually sustain the business.

There will come a point in your company’s journey when you need your team and the public to understand what makes your culture distinctive.

Too lofty, or too specific, can sink your intent

Being a retailer or tools provider or game producer is fine work. Saying that that thing you offer makes lives (or the world) better in your mission statement is a bridge too far. Can you guess who says this? That would be Snap. On the too-specific side, check out Barnes & Noble: “To operate the best omni-channel specialty retail business in America.” All those qualifiers box them out of anything new or different (which, frankly, a national book retailer today might want to explore).

Leave the bragging to others

Long ago at Google, we were vigilant about avoiding the word “innovative” to describe the company’s products (and a quick search on about.google.com indicates that’s true today). The lesson I took away was that you can talk about features like speed, ease of use, integration — but let (customers, partners, reporters, analysts) give you a shout-out for your innovation and creativity.

There will come a point in your company’s journey when you need your team and the public to understand what makes your culture distinctive (an S-1 or an acquisition is a good forcing function). Whatever core values you come up with, involve your team early, and embed it within every company initiative. When you hang it on the wall, you’ve only just begun.