Words on a Wall – The Value of Values?

The truth is values are easy to write down but hard to live up to…

I fully understand the desire of organisations to develop a clear set of values.  Whether we call them our values statement, mission, vision, or proposition the idea is that if we set out clearly the principles that really matter to us then this will help to shape and guide the actions and behaviour of our employees.  I’ve seen hundreds of examples over the years.  It all sounds fine in theory, but what about the reality?

The truth is values are easy to write down but hard to live up to.  It is how we act in accordance with our values (or not as the case may be), day in day out, in all of our interactions and decision making within the workplace that defines whether values will have the desired impact or not.  For this reason, 90% + of the hard work comes after the values have actually been defined.

Over the years, I’ve noticed the following common mistakes regarding the development of organisational values:

Values determined solely by CEO and Leadership team

Too often, values are determined by those at the top of the organisation.   In many cases, a corporate leadership away day is organised and the output from the event is a list of desired corporate values that are then cascaded to the organisation.

Employees end up feeling the process is done ‘to’ them rather than ‘with’ them.  How can we expect our employees to align their behaviours to our values if we have not involved and included them within the whole process?  Anyway why stop there, if we are going to be truly inclusive why not broaden representation to include customers and partners?  This process cannot be rushed, and organisations that pay lip service to this process are storing up significant difficulties later on.  The chances of success are greatly enhanced when there is a clear and inclusive process of listening at all levels of the organisation.  Having the patience and time to do this well is vitally important, and will help to combat some of the inevitable cynicism that will exist.

Our values do not differentiate us to the competition

When working with organisational leaders, I see many well meaning values statements that include things like Integrity, innovation, teamwork, and continuous improvement.  They look good and sound good on the surface.  Yet they do not reflect the unique identity of the organisation, with all its nuances and complexities, but rather follow the safe path of traditional ‘management speak’.  To be successful, leaders need to be really authentic, and ask whether our values truly capture the essence of the organisation?

There are plenty of examples of generic or clichéd values being developed by organisations, without taking into account what they really mean to the business or its employees.  Let’s take Integrity, respect and innovation as examples. As a set of core values they sound impressive. But any organisation with these values has plenty of competition as these are the most commonly expressed values of FTSE 100 companies (source Maitland Values Report 2015). Integrity is claimed as a core value by 35 of the FTSE 100; respect by 29 and innovation by 24. The top ten values claimed by the FTSE 100 comprise an impressive list of virtues including transparency, responsibility and honesty.

Organisational Behaviour is not aligned with the values

Unless leaders in your organisation are fully committed to living and breathing the values you arrive at – especially in times of adversity – they will not have the desired impact.  Nothing will undermine efforts to develop values more than leadership that acts in a way contrary to the values you have promoted.

Consider the following scenario.  If one of your values is ‘respect in the workplace’ and you have a senior manager who, whilst technically brilliant, is not exactly known for their sensitivity in dealing with people, what decisions will the organisation make?  Are you willing to challenge the issue and look at tough decisions if they refuse to change and align their behaviours with the values?  For values to stick, organisations have to be intolerant of anything that undermines their core values.  Remember, nothing kills your efforts faster than leaders who do not lead by example.  This renders values meaningless, creating cynicism, damages morale and reduces productivity, which hurts the business.

People do not feel connected to the values

When speaking with people at all levels of the organisation, it can become clear that they do not actually feel connected to the values, and often can’t explain what their organisations values are or why they are important.  There are often many complex reasons for this.  This missed opportunity can end up disenfranchising and de-motivating employees – precisely the opposite of what the organisation was seeking to achieve in the first place.

As stated earlier, 90%+ of the hard work is focussed in this area however.  One method that can help to connect individuals with the values is to support each value with clear behaviour guidelines.  Values need to be sufficiently defined in behaviour terms to remove ambiguity and act as an easy reference point for people in the organisation.  Using values statements as a metric can help to ensure the strength of the culture going forward.  Measuring success by the way we live and breathe the values helps people to form the connection between the values and success.

The challenging process of helping employees connect to the values is often underestimated.  In my experience, there is simply no quick fix to this.  It takes strong and unified leadership buy in at the top of the organisation, and a willingness to be brave and accept the pain that opening up conversations with employees about real values will incur.  We cannot expect employees just to ‘get it’ straightaway.    The process of consulting employees is too often rushed when what is required is real patience to listen to employees so that we create some genuine ownership at all levels.  This task is hugely difficult and should never be underestimated.

The values are not subsequently embedded within everything the organisation does

It will take time and effort to embed your values into everything you do, from your recruitment practice, to reward decisions, to customer service. They will impact performance management, how you promote employees and how you handle dismissals. Literally every employee related process is impacted.  Your values will also be at the heart of what you promise customers and how you react to complaints.

The existing policies and procedures of the organisation need to be sense checked to see that they align with the values or whether they work against them.  This is an important aspect to ensure internal systems and processes actually support the values.  Internal communication should frequently be referenced back to why the values are so important.

A useful model is to encourage employees across the organisation to nominate individuals who they believe best embody the values on a day to day basis.  This peer recognition can be extremely helpful in reinforcing the values and driving behaviour in the right areas.

Do it well, or don’t do it at all

Shaping values in the right way can undoubtedly have a transformative positive effect on culture.  But there are serious caveats attached.  To undertake such work in a meaningful way that creates a sustainable legacy for an organisation takes a huge amount of commitment, energy and focus at all levels.

We cannot expect employees to feel positive and connected around a hollow set of values that are not put into practice by leaders in any organisation.    Done poorly, it can be demoralising and damaging for the business.  We know the risks of getting this wrong.  But done well, it can create something really unique which is difficult to replicate.  It remains clear that organisations that take the time to focus on values and really embed them tend to achieve better results than the ones that don’t.

By avoiding some of these pitfalls and considering the purpose and meaning of values in a much deeper way we may begin to move beyond values being the meaningless words on the wall of reception to something which is much more profound and deep rooted in the organisation.

Whether you as an organisation are looking at developing some core values for the first time, or feel your existing values hold little meaning for your employees, we are always pleased to have a discussion and share our insights and learning.

Kevin Miller

Director, Tamar HR

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