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Organisational values must reflect reality, not aspirations - why?

Published 29th March 2017 by Melissa Farrington
Dominoes being chopped by hand

Organisational values should be a positive reflection of the status quo; they are the best parts of ‘how we do things around here.’

And yet organisations consistently treat them as an aspirational pledge, a set point they want to get to in the future, yet treated as if they reflect the here and now.

This is a problem, because then it becomes about change management and you get all the standard change management problems, such as resistance. The values are seen as belonging to senior leaders rather than universally owned, and the whole thing seems to employees like just another initiative.

7 tips to help you develop organisational values that reflect reality

Why are you doing it?

Going on a values journey isn’t for every organisation: if the benefits are murky and the risks high, it might not be appropriate.

So the first step is to ask why you’re doing it. Will it allow you to bring new employees in and get them up to speed quicker? Do you have an engagement problem and need a bottom-up wave to deliver empowerment? Will it deliver an increased focus across the business on customer service?

Good PR is never enough because then the aim can quickly descend into trying to gain attention in a crowded marketplace, which leads people to take risks and push for values that carry emotional value rather than those that are reflective of the existing culture.

What will happen if you get it wrong?

Cultural work has consequences: if you try something and it doesn’t work, you’re pushing people further towards change fatigue and making them more cynical. This is especially true of values work, which can be sensitive, emotionally-charged and linked to the very fabric and purpose of the organisation.

Stakeholders need to be aware of what’s at stake. If you set values that aren’t representative of how people feel, you can heighten disengagement or subtly dissuade them from achieving in ways that have worked so far.

Another thing to think about is not if you get it wrong, but if it’s not perceived in the right way. When HR is seen as ‘rolling out’ a values  journey, it can filter through and land into different departments very differently than what HR and the business had in mind.

This  is why stakeholders need to know what’s at stake: that way you get senior level sponsorship, message discipline from the CEO down, and the budgets necessary to ensure you get results.

Recognise values as emergent, not created

Values are not something you ‘come up’ with - yet many organisations will get their senior team in a room and essentially brainstorm until they are happy with an arbitrary list that sounds good and they think will resonate with people.

The best organisations go on a journey of discovery: the first step is to generate as much feedback and noise in the business as possible, to give a massive dataset that lets the organisation know how people feel, what they bring to work, how they treat their customers, what they think makes the organisation unique and more.

This dataset should be as diverse as possible, with many different types of people included. Once the noise has been generated, the organisation must look for signals - patterns, repeated words, shared passions and common positive behaviours.

These should be as universally appealing as possible. When playing back values, employees should recognise them as old friends.

Meaning and nuance are important

Values must have broad appeal and mean the same thing to diverse people if you expect your values to bring people together.

This is very important for global businesses because words, phrases and concepts mean different things to different cultures and people. For example, if one of your values is ‘not taking work too seriously,’ this could be attractive and personable in one country, but demotivational  and disrespectful in another.

This underscores what’s at stake with values and why it’s a long, emotional, difficult process. Global business or not, you’re looking for the nucleus of the value, the universal concept behind it, that breaks down identically across different people from totally different walks of life.

Clarity trumps innovation every time

Values work when there is little room for doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity, all of which fuel mismatched expectations and can paradoxically create boundaries between people because their interpretation of the values (and subsequently of the ideal behaviours represented by those values) are different.

Never go for words that simply sound intrinsically good. Clarity should be an overriding goal when discovering values and not just because more people will ‘get them,’ but because it’s much easier to work out what workplace behaviours are being encouraged when a value is simple. It’s also easier to collaborate with others if you can be confident their interpretation of the value is the same as your own.

Organisations that change over time will also find it easier to evolve the nuance and messaging around simpler values.

What other organisations are doing is interesting, not a guide

Organisations that sense they need to undergo cultural change or transformation should not attempt to move to an organisational culture they admire, because it might work in the context in which they admire it, and fail utterly in their own organisation.

The number one rule of values work is that you look at what you’ve got and start there: this is not a time to think about what could be or try to be something you’re not.

In that way, it’s actually a great way for the organisation to be honest with everyone, bring people together, and from there, start looking at areas of change that everyone can get on board with.

Don’t stick the values on the wall

Putting values on the way does not embed them quicker: you don’t want to be seen as putting the visuals and the branding ahead of the embedding process, the integration with reward and recognition and the role modelling by senior leaders.

There should always be a lag: by all means put them on the wall and be proud of them, but it’s something to be done once you’re confident the values are accepted by all and integrated into daily behaviours.