By Anne Stenbom and Helen Battersby

Values indicate what is important to us and this can vary greatly from individual to individual, even individuals from the same family. Where values are held in common they can mean slightly different things. A husband and wife could share the value of “family” but to one it means the nuclear family and the other the extended one. Clashes could ensue as a result. Our values are implicit, they are so much a part of our habitat that we don’t notice they’re there. We may be even hard-pressed to list which are the most important. However, whenever our values are compromised, we may feel angry, upset and perhaps (if the value is deeply held) unable to function.

What does this have to do with the work environment? Everything, as values consciously or unconsciously lived are expressions of the company’s culture. The way things are done relate directly to performance and results. Values are indicators of organisational culture which determines the environment which determines results.

The values an organisation actively displays are a measuring stick to its people about what’s important. They tell clients and potential clients “This is what we’re about, who we are, this is our identity, our brand.” (The brand is the story a company tells the world about its culture; culture is the story it lives.)

Many organisations are aware of the importance of values, at least on the superficial level of pinning them to a wall, or a website. The disgraced company Enron famously listed its values as Communication, Respect and Integrity but unfortunately merely articulating those values did not mean their automatic embodiment. For real behavioural effect, pre-requisites include the collective activity of picking the values, deciding which associated behaviours result (and which are unacceptable) and putting them into action. This includes ensuring the principles relating to those values are enshrined in structures and procedures including how and who you hire, how and what you reward. Perhaps most challenging of all is the addressing of non-acceptable behaviours, wherever they appear in the organisational hierarchy.

But what about the people who work in the organisation – what if their values don’t align with those of the company in which they work? Imagine if the culture is “Don’t question, do as you’re told” wrapped in the value of loyalty yet your values are of honesty or creativity or responsibility. You’d either leave or be outwardly compliant but inwardly resentful and working at less than your potential. This is the opposite of engagement, where the person does not “show up” for work – the body is at the desk, but not much else. Conversely, the organisation would not want to hire someone who was not aligned with their values. Imagine the irony of a resentful receptionist under a banner promising “We put the client first”.

However, where there is a fit between personal values and company cultural values then the potential for engagement and performance is maximised.

Why choose core values?

To stand for something

The values espoused are a clue to a company’s identity e.g. Nike’s listed values are: performance, authenticity, innovation, and sustainability whilst Patagonia, also a sportswear company, does not list values but everything they say, do and promote is suffused with their values of sustainability, care and passion.

To create common ground

When values are built from the ground up (rather than as a marketing exercise), it inevitably involves people sharing ideas of what is important to them and learning about what is important to others. This positive and open exploration creates a common language which all have helped to create. This co-creation reduces assumptions and enhances understanding.

To get alignment/focus on the same direction

Values work is not just about deciding what is important but how what is important subsequently gets sewn into the fabric of the business. What are the behaviours stakeholders can expect as a result of these values; what are the actions in line with our values; what processes result from our values?

To guide decision-making

Values that are strongly held in the organisation will create a framework guiding activity. Transparently connecting values to decisions powerfully underlines the importance of that value for the organisation. For example Patagonia, who hold deep values around sustainability, declare: “We know that our business activity – from lighting stores to dyeing shirts – creates pollution as a by-product. So we work steadily to reduce those harms. We use recycled polyester in many of our clothes and only organic, rather than pesticide-intensive, cotton”.

To agree on what’s important

Transparent and inclusive work on values is an effective method of defining and agreeing what is important to the collective.

To inform behaviours

Most of us know the aphorism “Honesty is the best policy” but we find not everyone has heard the continuation of that phrase “…but not the policy of an honest man”. This means when honesty is truly integrated as a value then it no longer needs to be externally prompted. It is simply what the person is with no need for justification. When it comes to collective values, however, positive and negative examples of behaviour are useful as collective endorsements of what is acceptable to all stakeholders. A large health care provider placed their values on a grid showing the accompanying behaviours under the headings: What it is and What it isn’t. Under the value of Team Spirit an example of what it is was: Speaking up and challenging if we feel something is not right and what it isn’t: Failing to address issues with others that have an impact on the service we provide. We would go as far as to say if values do not inform behaviours then they hold no practical value. Values in action are the only values that count.

To choose the right people for the right team

When values are integrated into the business, they will be present in the processes of recruitment. What kind of individual will be aligned with the organisation? Which questions/activities in the selection process elicit those values? There are high cost implications for hiring people who are the wrong fit for all parties. Values-based interviews and inductions reduce the likelihood of this mismatch.

To identify the purpose of the group

Identifying values can be a precursor to identifying purpose and vice versa. The questions: What are we about, what do we stand for, can elicit both values and purpose.

To support change

Values mapping creates a platform for change into which all have had an input and therefore buy-in is high. The wider the participation in an organisation, the greater the acceptance of required change to evolve from today to tomorrow’s culture.

To harness the power of diversity

Talking about values lets us see what is important to people and helps understanding of differences. Understanding builds trust and trust is the basis of better working relationships. Where there is diversity, common values unite.

Excerpt from “Leadership through Covid-19 and Beyond.  How to create an integrated 21st century organisation”. Published Oct. 2020 / by Anne Stenbom & Helen Battersby.

About the authors

Anne Stenbom and Helen Battersby are co-creators of Leadership Through and Beyond Covid-19.  They are also co-founders of Global Business Leaders, a company specialising in leadership development across Europe and further afield.  They have developed The Discovery Prism© framework as a practical guide to connecting Values & Bigger Purpose to Vision, Strategy, Stakeholders & Legacy. Their common passion is to help develop thriving organisations that practice sustainability from a human as well as an environmental perspective.

Leave a Reply