How to meaningfully reconnect with your values

By Beth Mason

Many organisations decide to identify and define company values with the aspiration that they will provide a moral compass for how their employees behave while at work (Vantrappen and Jong, 2018). However, values all too often end up on a faded poster or discarded mug, only to be enthusiastically rolled out at the annual corporate away day, and then forgotten about again. As organisations emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, employers may want to take the opportunity to reconnect with their values and meaningfully embed them in their organisation. Recent research conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies explored how to meaningfully embed organisational values (Mason, Allen, and Hirsh, 2021).

One way to think about making values a lived reality, is to imagine embedding organisational values like growing a plant (Mason, 2021). For organisations with existing values, the process of reconnecting starts by sowing the metaphorical seeds; discussing the purpose of the values with staff and what the benefit is of having them. Doing so will help remind and re-engage the workforce about the company’s values and foster understanding and ownership before taking the next steps. Engaging with a diverse group of employees will help to provide a nutrient-rich soil of different viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds, including those in different departments, roles, levels, and tenures. Organisations should make use of internal employee groups and networks to facilitate bottom-up approaches to re-connecting with the values. This is key as research found that only 30 per cent of personal values are also championed by employers (The Institute of Leadership and Management).

Like a plant, the climate for embedding values is important. The process needs to be driven by leaders through role-modelling and communication of the values in everyday conversations, activities, and practices (Negro and Vargas, 2019). For this to be effective, leaders need to feel ownership of the values. This can be encouraged by engaging collaboratively with leaders, relating the values to leadership behaviours, and championing good and consistent values-based leadership. Having values-led decision-making is particularly important in light of the Covid-19 crisis as many organisation’s responses are under greater scrutiny.

Displaying values in places that staff interact and engage with often is important, although constant communication of the values may not always be beneficial and could lead to cynicism without significant action (Dermol and Širca, 2018). Employers need to consider where and when staff will be exposed to the values, particularly if remote ways of working are to continue. Supportive communications from leaders may also be needed, especially following a period of change or disruption to work such as the pandemic. This will reassure and encourage employees about what is expected of them and prevent employees from solely highlighting where other work colleagues are not living them.

The next step is to shine a light on how the values relate to employee’s behaviour and work. Creating activities where staff can evaluate themselves or the organisation against the values, share stories of when each other have lived the values, and rewarding employees who demonstrate the values can help re-enforce the importance and benefits of the values and generate meaningful links with their work (Culliney and Robertson-Smith, 2013). The Covid-19 pandemic may provide a backdrop for many powerful stories of employees demonstrating the values which organisations can draw upon and celebrate. Providing leaders with the freedom to be creative in developing their own ways of socialising the values in their offices and teams is also a method for increasing ownership of the values amongst leaders.

Creative thinking may be necessary to find methods for socialising values for remote workers, and greater work may be required to encourage employees to engage with the values, without having any face-to-face interaction. On the other hand, the Covid-19 context may also have increased internal meetings as the company responds to the crisis and tries to keep in touch with employees, and these briefings are a prime time to promote the values within the organisation.

For values to grow beyond a single activity or presentation, they also need to be rooted in people management processes. This can be done in two ways: by considering how the values can be embedded in the structure of the process and demonstrating how people are treated within that process. To increase alignment of organisational actions with organisational values, research suggests that HR professionals should consider if the systems and processes achieve the business objectives (Hyde and Williamson, 2000); if systems and processes promote behaviours associated with the core values; and have any processes that conflict with the core values been removed? Key people management processes to embed organisational values include attraction and recruitment, induction, performance management, promotion and reward, and training and development. One example within the current context that will apply to many organisations is the future of remote or flexible working and return to office planning. As employers take steps to return to previous ways of working or develop new ways of working, they should reflect on if their processes for managing these changes, and the way employees are being treated, is aligned with the values.

Embedding values into an organisation is an ongoing process, and they will need continuous weeding and pruning to ensure they remain healthy and alive. Evaluation is critical to measure how successfully the values are embedded and reviewing the activities that are being undertaken to keep them fresh. When considering evaluation, think about what is being measured, what the most appropriate method is, and what resources are available, all of which is guided by what the values are, and the organisational context.

Following this period of uncertainty and as employers and staff adjust to new ways of working, reconnecting with the organisation’s values can be a useful process for re-focusing the workforce and providing a steer to move forward. While reconnecting with the values needs to be driven by leaders, it should also involve engagement and collaboration with members of the whole organisation. The values should be encouraged to branch through everything the organisation does, weaving their vines through people, practices, and processes. Employers should also recognise how the values have been displayed through the businesses and its employees’ experiences and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and these actions should be celebrated.

About the Author:

Beth is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) specialising in work and wellbeing, sustainability, and promoting equality, diversity, and inclusion at work. Beth holds an MSc in Applied Social Psychology, and a BSc in Psychology and is an experienced researcher using both quantitative and qualitative methods such as undertaking reviews, interviews, experimental, and survey-based research. IES is an independent, apolitical, international centre of research and consultancy in public employment policy and HR management. It works closely with employers in all sectors, government departments, agencies, professional bodies and associations.

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