The Magic of Value Statements is in Failing at Them

Marianne Bellotti
5 min readMar 17

Or what I learned from years of working for cult-like founders

Image by Freepik

I have always been deeply cynical about value statements. You know what I mean: those written lists of vague platitudes that companies try to cargo cult on top of an existing set of organizational processes. You’re supposed to memorize them because they are supposed to govern your behavior and guide what you optimize for in work decisions. C-Suite executives delight in making you repeat them, in large groups preferably and in unison. They’re too pithy to be instructions and often seem beyond the scope of actual work functions, as if the organization has the right to shape what kind of person you are rather than just a transactional exchange of labor for capital.

They leave enough room for self-parody by saying things like “Don’t be evil” (Google) “Consumer obsessed” (Amazon) “Great minds don’t think alike” (Uber). They are written about the organization but usually without the organization’s input. Cofounders and other executives squirrel themselves away in some conference room, draft them without any real examination of the actual culture of the organization they run, then present them as fact. Not goals. Not aspirations. This is who we already are.

Up until recently my take on value statements has been deeply cynical. If you have to write down what your culture is and proactively instruct other people in it, it’s probably not actually your culture. Human beings have an amazing capacity for adaption, mirroring, conformity even. People sometimes need to have the details of how values translate to specific actions (or inactions) explained to them, but people will adopt most of the broad tenants of a culture just by being included as a member. Forcing people to recite value statements on command is just creepy.

But lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps that’s the whole point. The last couple of places I’ve worked have had value statements. And as with all value statements the rank-and-file spent a lot of time internally complaining about how the values were bullshit and didn’t reflect reality at all. There’s always a delta between what the value statement says and how the organization actually is. Founders believe the goal is to get that delta as small as possible, but I think a more meaningful…

Marianne Bellotti

Author of Kill It with Fire Manage Aging Computer Systems (and Future Proof Modern Ones)