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Corporate values are everywhere: how do you really get people to live those values, and how will know when they do?

9th May 2016
Compass and values
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In this article Jo Ayoubi, CEO of Track Surveys, looks at how mature organisations tackle the increasingly important topic of organisational values, including how to get long-term employee buy-in and what happens when values get derailed.

We can’t ignore the importance of values in the discussion of business and employment, training and development, leadership and management.

Values are part of the culture of an organisation: values are the key principles which guide the organisation’s approach to doing business. 

Like our personal values, organisational values give us a basis for how we approach all our relationships and interactions, how we prioritise, how we take decisions, and how we solve problems.

We see everywhere statements of corporate values. Google ‘corporate values’ and you will find company after company that states its values publicly.

But despite values statements having been around for several decades now (I was subjected to my very first list of ‘values’ in the early nineties), we still have very recent examples of organisations (sometimes whole industries) that have failed to embed basic values, risking jobs, reputation and in some cases, people’s lives.

Organisational values give us a basis for how we approach all our relationships and interactions

A good example is how some companies in the financial sector failed to live up to their stated values, spiralling downwards into miss-selling and the LIBOR interest rigging scandal.

Indeed, the very sustainability of a business is now being linked to both personal and organisational values in current research and literature.

And in a key article in Harvard Business Review, the writers state that “values initiatives have nothing to do with building consensus—they’re about imposing a set of fundamental, strategically-sound beliefs on a broad group of people”.

So what are the challenges?

The challenge for a business, and for us as HR professionals, is how to make those values really happen.

Visibility

How many people in your organisation know what its value are? And if they do manage to recite the full list, can they give you an example of how they have seen even one of those values being demonstrated, by themselves, their manager, or a senior leader?

So values need to be clearly communicated, regularly, at every opportunity. More importantly, people need to understand how each of the values affects them individually, and what difference it makes to how the business operates.

And of course, they should be able to see those values in the everyday actions of the people around them.

A good example of clear and understandable values is the Johnson & Johnson Credo, which has been cited as being one of the key reasons why the company survived the Tylenol crisis in the eighties.

Accountability

Embedding values is not just the responsibility of HR, as some executives like to think.

People need to understand how each of the values affects them individually, and what difference it makes to how the business operates.

More than anything else, getting the right values in place must be led from the front, by leaders who are fully committed to those values, and who demonstrate the values in their actions and words.

Getting values into everything

When working with organisations who are incorporating values or changes to their culture, we always ask whether the values are an integral part of discussions around feedback, performance, recruitment, induction, promotion, reward and succession.

Part of our work is helping to define these values in such a way that they can be discussed openly at every level.

This involves incorporating the language of values into the key processes of performance discussions, feedback and goal setting.  Values need to be clearly stated in terms that everyone can understand, and assessed formally and informally.

For example, our work with leadership teams can include assessment or feedback that incorporate the language of the organisation’s values into the leadership behaviours – giving us an opportunity to see how these are being demonstrated at senior level.

How do you know if people are really living the values?

The best way is to ask!  Use online questionnaires, surveys and 360 feedback tools, interviews, ad hoc discussions, team meetings or away-days to tap into what’s happening with the values by asking employees:

  1. Do they know what the values are?
  2. Do they agree that these values are right?
  3. Do they know why they’re important – i.e. that they guide the way we do things, and especially how we deal with and solve difficult issues?
  4. What do these mean to them personally?
  5. Can they see the values in front of them every day? In their managers, in their leader?
  6. Are they themselves able to show those values, and encouraged to do so?
  7. Are they comfortable with the way decisions are taken, the way people are treated, and the way problems are solved?
  8. Are their personal values matched by the organisation’s values?
  9. What does each specific value mean? Have they seen it in action? How often?
  10. Is there a way in which they can feed back on the values to the organisation, especially when they’re not being lived?
  11. Do they have the space to discuss and more fully understand the values with their manager, their team?
  12. Where there are strong teams, are you able to track any issues of behaviour where values are not being followed – is there a mechanism for identifying this in teams and bigger groups?
  13. The ability of an organisation to embed its key values and have its employees live those values is becoming more important than ever; companies with a strong values framework are leading the way in employee engagement and sustainability.
  14. Can they see the way values feed into all the organisation’s people processes, including promotion, assessment, performance discussions, goal-setting and tracking, feedback, reward and recognition

The key to making this happen is through incorporating the language of those values into every conversation and every process – and tracking and measuring the behaviours that demonstrate those values.

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