Organisations must keep their values at the core of everyday operations or risk employees losing a sense of purpose and productivity.
In a recent meeting with a client’s staff I was struck by how flat people were when talking about their organisation’s stated purpose and values.
I offered the observation that from an outsider’s point of view, some quite strong values were apparent in the organisation’s work that connected with helping individuals and improving society.
This intervention prompted a sea change in the conversation. Staff became much more animated and passionate. There was real emotion in the room and a clear sense of purpose and values emerged.
This encounter started me thinking about organisational values, their potential power, and how sometimes organisations can fail to harness that power.
It is commonplace to hear that considerable effort has been put into crafting some values but that the words have been forgotten, are not really front-of-mind or are consigned to a ring-binder sitting on an office shelf somewhere. It is also common to hear of an effort to craft some new values in response to a new CEO.
Both situations hint at values being the product of some wordsmithing in a darkened room or an attempt to articulate a brand new world. If there is any truth in this perception, then it seems to me that values are being misunderstood and the opportunity they present missed.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great – Why some companies make the leap and others don’t, refers to values as ‘deep and unchanging beliefs’. Whilst company strategy, practices, policies and systems may all rightly change in response to new challenges, values should remain a constant.
If values are deep and unchanging beliefs, Collins goes on to point out that certain other truths follow from this:
- Values, whether expressed explicitly or not, are already present in your organisation
- Values cannot be set or imposed, only discovered. It is key not to get people to share your values, rather to recruit and retain those people who already share them.
This view of values is a challenge to many organisations, and people in them. Considering values often occurs at times of change when organisations seek to renew themselves or seek to articulate how they will be different.
Seeing values as already present and implicitly known appears, at face value, in conflict with this.
Just because there are a set of values that are implicit does not mean the organisation lives up to them
In reality, just because there are a set of values that are implicit does not mean the organisation lives up to them in all the ways and to the extent that it could.
Discussing values offers the prospect of reconnecting individuals with why they joined the organisation in the first place, and finding ways to make the best of what the organisation already is.
On a very practical level, I experience organisations wrestling with a number of tensions or polarities when thinking about their values.
What are we and what do we want to be?
Tension between the ‘state as is’ and the ‘future state’ is evident in the discussions I have had in organisations. The nature of this tension can be constructive or destructive.
On the positive side, the tension can simply be a result of the ‘future state’ being aspirational, a sense that the organisation wants to live up to its core values more, or to challenge itself to be more of something it already is.
On the negative side, the tension can sometimes arise because the ‘future state’ is simply a list of buzz-words and phrases that those in senior positions in the organisation think are good things to be.
Is it so important that it needs to be a value?
As an example, innovative is often a word that pops up regardless of whether or not that reflects why people join the organisation, what customers value from it, or its relative importance for the organisation’s continued success.
Some innovation is in most cases always useful, but how important really is it compared with other possible values? Is it so important that it needs to be a value? What is really important here?
How we are versus how we wish to be perceived?
A second tension that emerges is between the organisation’s culture versus how it wishes to be perceived by external stakeholders. There can be a pull towards presenting the organisation in a way that might entice consumers but which is different from the felt reality of employees.
Whilst there may always be some gap between how employees behave with each other internally and how the organisation wishes to be seen externally, as long as there is a true commitment to working to close the gap this is all well and good.
The danger comes when values are chosen because they sound good rather than because they are important to the organisation’s future success and its employees.
So what does all this mean in practice?
There is real value in open and honest discussion with a wide spectrum of employees about why the work of the organisation matters and what they see as its core strengths and values.
This work may not throw up any surprises but has immense value in reconnecting employees emotionally with their organisation and its purpose.
There is also real value in the role of the external facilitator or consultant. A central part of their role is in ensuring that key voices in the organisation are not lost in the process of drafting the values, and that the process fulfils the purpose of helping the organisation renew and revitalise.