If you really want to get value from your core values, you need them to resonate across the organisation. They can’t be just aspirational, beautifully crafted words in an annual report, or an excuse for a marketing launch: they need to mean as much to the person driving the forklift, as they do to the leadership team. As learning professionals, we all know this: we’re well versed in the arguments for building a shared sense of purpose, a common culture, and a meaningful set of values.


But the elephant in the room is that, too often, an organisation’s core values are anything but meaningful to the people who matter most.


In a Deloitte Survey, half of employees thought that “clearly defined values and beliefs” contributed to their company’s success. But that means one in two employees didn’t.


In the most extreme cases, the problem is not just that employees don’t see the value in the values; it is that they have strong feelings of negativity and cynicism towards them. This is particularly the case in companies which have been through more than one cycle of rolling out a new set of corporate values, usually preceded by a change in leadership. The reaction from employees, understandably perhaps, is ‘here we go again’ and ‘what does this have to do with me?’


Writing in Harvard Business Review, Patrick M. Lencioni cites the example of the CEO of a financial services company, who kicked off a management conference with an announcement about a new set of values. The announcement was accompanied by a slick video with a rousing soundtrack and stock footage of famous athletes, intercut with employees waving awkwardly at the camera. When the video finished, the CEO asked the assembled managers if they wanted to see it again, and he was met with a loud “No!”


That audible groan of dismay will be familiar to many of us who have been responsible for starting a conversation about values. So what’s to be done about it?


At hpc, we take the approach that values should be thought of in a three layer structure, which sit one above the other: ‘they’, ‘we’ and ‘me’.


Often, values are seen by employees as something that concerns the management team, shareholders or the media – it’s something ‘they’ devised, and something ‘they’ talk about, with no real connection to us or our daily lives.


The challenge for organisations is to encourage employees to think about how ‘we’ implement those values in our roles, how they matter to ‘us’, and ultimately, why they matter to ‘me’. 


We kickstart this process by bringing groups together across the organisation, and asking people to think first about the company’s values in the context of the things that they do really well. It can be as straightforward as choosing a value, and asking how it comes to life in their part of the organisation.


The process doesn’t have to involve anything more complex than a flipchart and a few markers – but the results can be astonishing. Focusing on the positive gives employees a tremendous sense of ownership, encouragement and self-regard. Once this conversation begins to open up, the biggest challenge can be getting employees to stop talking.


The second step is to look at the things that are not being done so well, and run counter to the organisation’s values. Because they have focused on excellence first, employees typically feel more empowered to talk about the areas where the values are not being lived.


The third question is what can be done to address these areas. And just like that, we’ve moved values from being something ‘they’ talk about to something ‘we’ do every day, to something that can drive ‘me’ in my work and something that ‘I’ can actively contribute to.


It is a powerful process, and one that is effective not just in newer organisations, but even in longer-established ones.


Storytelling is an important part of the conversation too: it needs to involve examples of values being lived well and less well both inside and outside the organisation.


When we’re asked why values matter, we sometimes share the story once shared with us by an acquaintance who went to pitch for the retention of a contract from an important client. The client told her that a competitor had just been in and had been badmouthing her company. In the interests of fairness, the client offered her the opportunity to respond.


She thought about it for a moment, and then – feeling that no matter how much she’d like to set the record straight, engaging in slagging off a competitor was at odds with her company’s values—she declined and said she’d prefer to talk about her proposal.


Two weeks later, the call came. The client said her company’s proposal was more expensive – but what followed wasn’t the rejection she was expecting. He’d been impressed by her integrity, he said, and he felt confident she would be just as discreet if she was ever asked about his organisation. She stayed true to her organisation’s values and her own—and retained the contract.


Having a real, meaningful set of values that are lived by every individual in the organisation should be the goal for every company. The good news is that getting there might just be easier than you thought.


Author – Justin Kinnear, Senior Facilitator, hpc.


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