Only Positive Values Work

A golfer poised at the tee who mentally admonishes herself to “don’t hit it in the water” will invariably see a splash in short order. Some contend that the human mind-body system does not comprehend negative constructions and therefore coach players to structure their self talk in positive frames as in “hit the green!”

And so it is with corporate values. They too should be set in positive terms. We believe in X. Treat people like Y. Honor agreements as Z. As much of an avid fan of Eric Schmidt and Google as I am, I nonetheless fear their choice of a negatively phrased corporate value (“Don’t be evil”) may ultimately do them–and their community–great harm.

Macolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point holds that people are neither inherently good or bad, but that context plays a huge role in how an individual behaves (eliminating graffiti in NY City subways dramatically cut crime). Well-articulated core values can set a powerful enabling context within an organization to achieve results well beyond the norm.

Ask people about their experience interviewing at Google and you will be treated to stories of “we’re at Google and you’re not” attitude. Probably pretty low on the “evil” scale, but because the intent of the founders was not framed in the positive, otherwise fine respectful individuals drift to this kind of behavior which will integrate over time into corporate postures which carry far more serious consequences.

One can easily understand how “don’t be evil” could have been earnestly, honestly adopted as a righteous battle cry in the early going at Google. They must have sensed that they were on to something big and perhaps been apalled at some the heavy-handedness exhibited by Microsoft. But with the benefit of time and experience and in the spirit of “it’s okay to be wrong; not okay to stay wrong” I call upon Eric, Larry and Sergey to recant their negative value and replace it with positive, easy-to-visualize targets. They will do their company, their investors and their community a world of good if they chose to do so.

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