Defining your Organisational Values – Three simple principles (A-R-C)
What are your Organisational Values?
I’m not talking about the ones on your website, but the real ones – the unwritten ones that drive how you and people in your organisation behave every single day?
Almost every organisation has a statement of beliefs or values on their website. It’s a way of showing the world what they are about and what they think is important. But these don’t always correspond with what the organisation (and people within it) really believe or do.
A significant amount of work goes into articulating corporate values (most often: surveys, focus groups, marketing/ branding discussions, multiple revisions and re-writes...) until finally, they are polished and published for all to see. The sad reality, however, is that in many organisations, even after all that work, if you ask employees what their company values are, many cannot remember or repeat them accurately, and an even lower proportion will say that they actually use them to make day-to-day decisions.
One of the reasons for this is that once the values are finalised (and up on the website), something switches for people mentally: it’s like they take a sigh of relief and feel that the “work is done”. Values are “ticked off” the to-do list!
It’s similar to the paradox of meritocracy  – companies that are more vocal about being equitable and meritocratic are often (if you look closely at the data) less fair and meritocratic in practice. Paradoxically, they show greater discrepancies in hiring and promotion than companies who don’t shout about it. One explanation for this is that the corporate brand/ image becomes a shield that people unconsciously hide behind – “Of course we are fair and equal, look at our brand! It’s what we are about!” – and consequently, they become less vigilant, less critical of themselves and less accountable for their personal actions and decisions. (I like to call this the “Benetton effect”!)
Publishing your Values is not the end of the journey. It’s really only the beginning.
For Values to truly drive how an organisation ticks, they need to be a living and breathing document, not a shiny piece of marketing that sits on a shelf. Yes, your values do form part of your employer brand and corporate image, and how they sound is important, but they should not be a PR exercise. They should be a true reflection and a guide for how things get done and how decisions get made every single day.
2020 tested all our values – both personal and organisational.
How we’ve responded to the multiple human crises we faced in the last year has exposed what we really believe, and what our true guiding principles are, when faced with challenge. Have we gone “inward” and prioritised our own gains, or have we gone “outward” and woken up to our place in the world and our power to impact the societies and communities in which we live and work? How have we taken care of each other? How are we treating our people? How are we balancing the difficult demands of survival versus customer care?
What are your organisational Values and do your people know and understand them?
Do they reflect how things are really done?
Are they evident in how you are responding to the pandemic? to BLM?
Are they fit for where you are now, and where you want to be in the future?
Are they aligned with your purpose?
If not, is it time to check and refresh?
This is a challenging time for everyone – a time where more basic “survival” needs might be at the forefront of our minds, while we grapple with job losses and remote working en-masse. Looking at culture and values may not seem like a priority at this time. However, in many ways, this is the precisely right time to do it.
When we are under pressure, we show our true colours – what is the current crisis revealing about your organisation’s true colours? Even if you’re not reflecting on this right now, many of your customers and employees will be. And it is very clear to the public eye which organisations are acting in a values-driven way right now and which ones are not – here are some examples from the
UK. But this is not about beating ourselves up for falling short of the ideals (because admittedly, we are all under enormous pressure right now – mentally, physically and financially, and businesses are struggling to survive), but it might be worth asking: “What can we learn from this, where are the gaps, and how should we adapt?”
Times of challenge and change offer critical moments to test whether the values are actually ‘working’, whether they are really core to how we operate, and whether they are fit for purpose. When companies act counter to their stated values, they risk reputational damage in the eyes of their customers and disengagement/ disillusionment in their employees. And in a time like the current crisis, this is heightened: it’s not just about exposing a lack of credibility, it’s about the real impact organisations have on peoples’ lives – and the damage can be significant and long-lasting.
Yes, things are up in the air and who knows when (and whether) this virus will be part of history. We don’t know whether there will be an “end” to the current situation or whether there will be a new beginning, a new normal and new ways of working. It is precisely when things are ambiguous and fast-changing that we need values – to help us make the difficult decisions and guide us through uncertainty and grey areas: so that we can make the right decisions under pressure, even where the answers aren’t obvious.
Whether we like it or not, we are already in a time of change and people are experiencing transformation as we speak. This can be scary but it’s also exciting. Our minds are being opened to new possibilities. This creates a ripe environment in which to pause, review and reset, to ensure we are operating with the right values, that will carry us through this crisis and beyond.
As McKinsey and many others have found, companies with a strong culture, with clearly defined core values (including diversity and inclusion, empowerment and trust), have the best chance of not just surviving, but thriving after the current crisis.
“Companies need to seize this moment—both to protect the gains they have already made and to leverage inclusion and diversity to position themselves to prosper in the future”.
“Companies pulling back on I&D now may be placing themselves at a disadvantage: they could not only face a backlash from customers and talent now but also, down the line, fail to better position themselves for growth and renewal”.
How should you define your Values?
The Harvard Business Review defines culture as “the tacit social order of an organization: It shapes attitudes and behaviors in wide-ranging and durable ways. Cultural norms define what is encouraged, discouraged, accepted, or rejected within a group. When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive”.
One of the most notable writers on the subject, Edgar Schein, describes organizational culture as having three levels:
Artefacts & Behaviour: visible structures and objects (e.g. buildings, décor) and typical behaviours (e.g. office humour, dress code)
Espoused Values: what the organization says they believe in (e.g. stated values and mission statements, policies and mantras)
Basic Underlying Assumptions: these are the ‘real’ values: the core beliefs of the organization. They are the unwritten, unspoken assumptions ingrained in the organisational mindset that really drive how decisions are made, what is valued and how the organization defines success.
In many organisations, the three levels don’t exactly align. Sometimes stated (espoused) values don’t truly reflect how people behave (e.g. we say we are non-hierarchical, but senior people get closed offices and special parking spots!). Sometimes there may be a disconnect between what we say we believe and what is evident from our processes or policies (e.g. we say we believe in collaboration and co-operation, but all bonuses are individual and not team-based).
In a perfect world there would exact alignment between what we believe, what we say and what we do... but it’s not a perfect world. So the best we can do is be as honest and genuine as possible in how we define and live up to our Values.
Here are three basic principles which can act as a guide for helping you articulate your organisational values:
1. Authentic: Are these truly OUR values?
Often, we can be tempted to “throw in” all sorts of values that are “good in general” rather that focusing on what is special, unique and a key strength for our organisation. Part of articulating who we are, is also articulating who we are not: and knowing that can help us focus. No organisation is good at everything and even “good” values have a flip side where too much can be harmful. We need to think about not just on what ‘sounds good’ but ‘what we are good at’ and what truly defines how we operate. What makes us different from others doing the same work? Is this truthfully what we believe? Is it achievable for us?
2. Relevant: Do they fit with our purpose, strategy and context?
We need to think about our values in line with the wider context within which we operate. Do they fit with where we are right now and where we want to be? Does it align with our overall purpose and our strategy? We need to take the lessons that the current crisis is teaching us about ourselves and how we work, but we also need to think about the future and where we want to be. What sort of organisation do we want to be when all this is over? Do our values help to support that aim? Do they fit with our vision, mission and strategy? Does it fit with what our employees want, what our customers want and what our stakeholders/ shareholders want? If not, they probably aren’t going to last.
3. Collective: Do they resonate with people across our organisation?
Very often, values are designed and articulated in a “top down” manner by senior management. We know from behavioural science that people are more invested in something that they have created themselves, that they feel part of. Values are more likely to become embedded in your culture if they are built from bottom up and people in the organisation feel a real sense that these are “our” values – not something I’ve been told to do. Trust your people, get their input and get them involved! After all, your values aren’t your values unless people within the organisation believe in them and ‘live and breathe’ them in all they do.
We have helped a number of organisations to identify and embed their values using a unique strengths-based methodology that aims to create lasting, positive change.
To hear more about this or any of our work, get in touch!
 Castilla, Emilio J., and Stephen Benard. “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations.” Administrative Science Quarterly 55 (2010): 543-576. © 2010 by Johnson Graduate School, Cornell University.
Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership, Vol. 2. John Wiley & Sons, USA.