General Business Strategy
The problem with organisational values
I frequently get asked to articulate organisational values statements for clients who sense the important role values play in positive company culture.
The first thing I say is “I can’t tell you what your values are; if they’re not authentically yours they’ll be meaningless”. And then I explain how we help with extracting them, shining the light of clarity on them and craft them into a concise set of statements structured to guide behaviours.
Then I go on to explain the two most important realities of organisational values:
- An organisation can’t actually have values
- Values are like handcuffs (in a good way)
Values and the human condition
Once I’ve dropped the two bomb-shells above, the second thing I say is “Are you clear about what you’re trying to achieve here? Because you know you can’t tell employees what to think, right?”
The reality of values is they’re deeply personal, deeply individual and deeply human. They’re part of our individual psychological make-up, the product of both nature and nurture, and they’re very hard to shift.
Telling an employee what personal values they must have is like trying to manage their feelings and dreams. Not gonna happen. That’s why we talk about organisational values.
But here’s the thing: if values are deeply seated inside each human, how can an inanimate entity, a business, have values?
All an organisation can do is identify and state a set of values its people collectively admire, relate and aspire to – the “approved” values that serve the organisation’s desired culture.
So if we’re just talking about a theoretical set of values we approve of, and the ‘real’ values live on inside each one of us, what’s the point of developing a set of values for your business?
Glad you asked.
Whilst you can’t tell employees how they should feel, as an employer you can certainly influence the way they behave.
As with any management directive, people are much more likely to comply if they understand WHY they should behave a certain way, and HOW it will benefit them.
For this reason, to be effective, your values articulation MUST have three parts:
- what the value is (we’ll discuss the different kinds on value and how to express them)
- the kind of behaviours it demands
- the personal and/or collective benefit of behaving that way
Creating values – the four categories
A company’s values should reflect what makes it uniquely successful. The message to employees is “This is what it takes to succeed here because these form the basis for the behaviours we expect”.
As such they need to be authentic and meaningful.
But that doesn’t mean all values have the same status; try to present them as all equal and you’ll run into problems because they just aren’t – and this will undermine authenticity… and that will erode compliance.
Not sure where to start? I recommend using this framework for creating and articulating your values.
Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones. They must be real, here and now, undisputed, felt daily and constantly restated. They are inherent and sacrosanct; they can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain. They must be maintained at all costs because they are the source of a company’s distinctiveness and your brand should be wrapped around them.
As such, these can have a very beneficial impact outside your organisation – they’re key to understanding ‘who you are’ and you’d want investors, prospective employee and potential customers alike to know them. So if you want to talk about your values, say, on your website, these are what you talk about. (However, if you’re doing a values exercise purely for external gloss purposes, you’re wasting your time as they won’t be supported internally and both staff and customers will soon spot you as a phony).
Aspirational values are those that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks. A company may need to develop a new value to support a new brand strategy, for example, or to meet the requirements of a changing market or industry. Aspirational values should be presented as such: this is what we want to embrace, and why. The honesty in doing so will be appreciated and they’re more likely to be supported.
Aspirational values need to be carefully managed to ensure that they do not dilute or conflict with the core. One company I worked with valued extremely hard work and dedication; its employees were known to work late into the evenings and on weekends and were richly rewarded – this was a core value. At one point, an executive suggested adding “work/life balance” as an aspirational value, but they ultimately decided against it because doing so would confuse employees about what mattered most to the company.
Permission-to-play values simply reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee. They tend not to vary much across companies, particularly those working in the same region or industry, which means that, by definition, they never really help distinguish a company from its competitors. ‘Honesty’ is probably the most common example.
Accidental values arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time. They usually reflect the common interests or personalities of the organization’s employees. Accidental values can be good for a company, such as when they create an atmosphere of inclusivity. But they can also be negative forces, foreclosing new opportunities. You need to be alert to the fact that accidental values can be heavily influenced by dominant personalities and may not reflect majority views. It’s also important to distinguish core values from merely accidental ones, as confusion here can be problematic.
KEEPING VALUES ALIVE
The clumsy imposition of values will result in them simply being ignored, completely undermining your good intentions.
Creating them should be an inclusive, collaborative process and there are lots of resources online that suggest methodologies. Doing this work can take a little time and effort, but it’s a great team exercise; binding, and invigorating.
Great, so then what? A common error I see – even when values have been arrived at in collaboration with the team – is when this is viewed as a one-off exercise. ‘Set and forget’ means you’ll end up with a lovely set of values sitting in your drawer, roundly ignored by everybody and making no difference whatsoever to anybody.
I call these zombie values.
To make your values live, you need to be constantly calling them out in meetings, job descriptions, staff reviews, social occasions and so on.
But even worse than zombie values, are murdered values….
Why would anyone murder a value, you might ask.
Because sometimes they can make life hard for management, and in fact CEOs are probably responsible for more murdered values than any other job title.
And this brings me (finally) to the second bomb-shell I drop on clients considering a values exercise….
Having a set of values is like volunteering to wear handcuffs!
Values are about agreeing a set of fundamental beliefs and corresponding behaviours with a diverse group of people.
But when the chips are down, will the business behave according to its stated values?
Two hallmarks of a strong values-based culture are courage and discipline. Coming up with them, and sticking to them takes guts.
Because occasionally, when properly practiced, values can inflict pain.
Why? And why is that pain entirely worthwhile?
- They impose constraints; they lock you to certain activities, priorities and standards. That’s the whole point!
- They lack power unless you share them with your team – which also entails sharing your commitment to them. As such, they leave executives open to heavy criticism for even minor violations. And that locks you even more strongly to them because if you step outside them, you’ll be going back on your word and that’ll undermine your leadership. In other words, they make you accountable to your stated beliefs.
- They might not work for everybody in your organisation. In fact they might make some employees feel like outcasts if they don’t fit them. It’s a price you must pay, and the benefit is achieving universal internal alignment, engagement and teamwork.
- They demand constant vigilance, there will be many forces undermining them.
If you’re not willing to accept the occasional angst values can involve, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating them.
But your business will be the weaker for it.