Keeping the values burning

In an era of increased customer choice and global awareness, a company’s values are becoming one of the important market differentiators. Savvy customers in developed countries can – and increasingly will – choose on the basis of perceived values of the company whose products or services they’re purchasing. Values have therefore become an integral part of the company’s mission statement or brand positioning. But how are those values lived inside an organisation?

In my 25 years’ experience with large and multi-national organisations, I have often seen leaders and teams paying lip service to shared values, while implementing decisions and strategies that actively break them. I have seen companies with the avowed value of care summarily dismiss their employees in times of crisis; teams professing courage where people were scared to question the boss’s authority; corporations that pride themselves on their openness engage in top-down “diktat-type” communiqués to their staff. What is therefore the value of organisational values?

At their best, values can be one of the most powerful motivators in work; they can be what gets us up in the morning, what makes us work long hours and drive for that next iteration of the product or project which will be just perfect; they can provide a shared bond between team members, a little secret society of people who “just get it”. When expressed well, they can be the glue that bonds a team together stronger than any external reward mechanism and makes sure that we all bring our best selves to work. How can leaders make sure then that values are widely shared?

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in my long organisational career is companies who hire external brand consultants to come up with their values, often after a cursory consultation with the CEO, MD and/or Marketing Director. The values are then implemented as part of a “brand redesign” and communicated to staff. No-one checks that the staff actually understand what the words mean, or that they’re rewarded – or even acknowledged – for living them in practice. Small wonder then that the professed values live mainly on company websites and in marketing materials. How can companies ensure that the values are understood, shared and lived?

In my experience there are three key steps:
1. Wide consultation about the understanding of the shared values, accompanied by a review of organisational processes and reward mechanisms to make sure they fit the new values. In this step, we use a variety of approaches and methodologies, including Participatory Leadership, the Barrett Cultural Tools model, Communities of Practice and others.

2. Continued socialisation and buy-in of the shared values by individual teams and staff members; this ensures that in the long run, team members will immediately spot and correct any transgression. At this stage, we run workshops and story-telling sessions for intact or mixed teams, and support them in sharing their value-based organisational stories through the use of online social media.

3. Leadership behaviour in role-modelling the values authentically and consistently across teams, departments and organisational divisions. In this step, which is often undertaken in parallel, or even before, the other two, we coach and help leaders understand and align their own value-set with those of the organisations they lead.If you want to reconsider how to put the focus back on shared values in your team or organisation, we invite you to start with the following questions:

  • When, how and by whom were the values defined? Check that they are still relevant and widely shared.
  • What is the common understanding of the values in action, as they relate to your business? Check that there are no different interpretations: e.g. courage can mean risk-taking to some and stability to others.
  • What other concerns could prevent the values being lived in the business? Check that the focus on the “bottom line” is not in conflict with some of the values: e.g. collaboration goes out of the window when people are rewarded for individual effort.

If you’d like to discuss in confidence how to design, apply, implement or share values in your team or organisation, please contact Ana or keep in touch through twitter or linkedin below.

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