Works Values

By Isabel Collins

Values are at the heart of belonging. But there is an innate challenge – the schism between what you say and do risks undermining the value of values.

Our human need to belong is very finely tuned – we pick up signals intuitively about who we want to belong with and what behaviour that code of belonging requires.

Values are like a radar pulse. If the signal beamed out to us says ‘This is what we value’, our antennae pick-up says

We believe you, we want to belong’ or ‘We don’t believe you, and we don’t want to belong’

Our split second readings of the radar are largely intuitive, not conscious.

  • My tribe or a rival tribe?
  • ‘In’ or ‘Out’?
  • Cooperation or conflict?

Too often though, the radar can prove off-beam.

Our experience falls short of the promise in those well-crafted values and purpose statements – the results of many months’ work, millions of pounds and a frenzy of consultants.

The confident words in big strong type look and sound persuasive. But those ‘values’, so far out of synch with daily reality, may as well be ‘Blah, blah and blah…’.

I once tried to take a picture from a public space outside a public-facing window of the head office of one of the big banks, with their values printed huge on the glass to show their transparency and honesty.

What I got was a photo of an angry security guard holding his hand up to the window, blocking over INTEGRITY, in capital letters, telling me I can’t photograph from the street. 

A week later the Libor scandal broke. 

The biggest irony wasn’t just the much vaunted value, but that this story could have been any one of half a dozen banks claiming ‘Integrity’ while their board planned contingencies into their budgets for regulatory fines into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Okay, an extreme example. And fair enough that any statement of values is partly aspirational. Anyone can have an off day.

But industry-endemic ethical contravention is more than a bad day or one rotten apple.

And we see a similar pattern in the persuasive beacons of social media culture.

Have we crossed over to where ‘Values’ is a kind of game of the most desirable words you can get away with claiming, without being found out?

Have we bought in to the contrived narratives and studied authenticity of the ‘Influencers’?

Like the millionaire campaigners who flew in to a climate change conference on private jets, yet so keen to look dressed-down earnest, the styling of values has undermined their importance.

It matters.

What you stand for, what you believe in, what you value – this is the hallmark of identity. And the evidence of it is the heart of belonging.

That’s the crux – the proof in the way you behave. This defines our tribe more distinctively than any flag we bear.

How we act by the code of those values. How we aspire to a purpose higher than making money, be a good citizen (as an individual or an organisation); how we make decisions through these values, and consider the impact on generations long after us.

And it’s the behaviour of leaders and colleagues, those daily habits and conforming with what’s accepted as normal, that will set culture far more firmly than the stated words of a code of conduct, however elegantly designed. (And why ‘culture fit’ is a dangerous premise, but that’s another essay.)

Of course there’s also a dark side to belonging, and in this realm values can be equally as powerful for gathering a group.

You rarely see the sign saying ‘We value humiliation, hate and harm to people who are different from us’ – but those crowds know how to gather round their own shared values and heritage.

Plenty of dreadful moments of human history to illustrate how belonging can grow into violence, conflict and atrocities.

Studies of extremist groups show the potent appeal of shared identity, the lure to someone who has always felt an outsider that this is where they can feel they belong.

So for values to have worth, we have a responsibility on both sides of the radar scans: taking care for the integrity of what we send, and challenging the integrity of what we receive. 

For World Values Day then, and for every day, here are three ways values can gain more value:

1. Make values active: ‘What we value’

(Not passive – ‘Our values’)

Show how you put this into action. 

‘We value Xxxx and because of this we do things this way [example Yyyy]

Show your people how to put values into action, in the context of the business and relevant to their daily work.

Focus not on the claim but the proof of ‘Why should we believe you? What are you doing because of this?’ 

And, on the receiving side, take an active role, not passive, in checking and challenging the values that are claimed.

2. Make values a shared accountability

Interdependence is the principle here – accountability for joining up, for considering the impact on your colleagues and their ability to continue to uphold values.

And accountability that we treat these principles as of worth – take time and care to challenge and preserve accountability.

This is why it’s so important to be conscious of what we tolerate – what are we putting up with, or waving away as harmless banter or ‘Oh, that’s just Bob!’?

This means setting the tone and providing a safe forum for feedback, in a balanced way that enables discussion about impact and consequence of actions (shouldn’t feel like witch-hunt or denouncing your neighbour!).

Shared accountability works best as an invitation to look after principles of worth, rather than an instruction to follow rules. Show why this matters, in context. 

Then taking care for values can grow into a matter of shared pride.

Also ensure that the accountabilities of each role are in synch with the values.

For example (both the following are taken from real experience on client projects…) 

If you say your company values customer service, don’t put a KPI that limits time spent on the phone with customers, or have a phone ‘dumping ground’ after 90 seconds (“Please hold, I’m putting you through to Derby…”).

If you say you value innovation don’t require teams to have 95 or 100% productivity against set tasks, allow at least 10% of time (work out what’s right for you, no text book answers) for experimentation and thinking. And allow the possibility and a safe space for that experimentation to fail. That’s how you can succeed.

And again, it’s our shared accountability as customers, shareholders and public, to hold companies to account on what they say they value.

3. Appreciation 

And finally, perhaps the most critical of all… 

If your people act on your values, and take accountability – share appreciation. 

Reward and recognise, yes. Make sure that you recruit and progress careers based on values, and how tasks are done, as per of performance assessment. 

The bonus, the promotion, the annual company awards… all great aspects of appreciation. 

But most important of all is to acknowledge the small things everyday. 

‘Thank you’ might be the least costly yet most powerful tool to uphold values. 

Coach leaders and managers to catch people IN not out. 

‘Thank you for taking the extra time on the phone with that customer, it was clear she was distressed and it took a while to sort out, but you solved the dilemma she really understood and by the end she has restored her trust. We all appreciate the difference that makes’

‘Thanks for that idea in the meeting – I know it didn’t go through today, but could you spend an hour or two looking a bit further at what could make it work better?’

Keep doing this (and yes, a whole lot more than will cram in one article!) and you will nurture a sense of belonging based on your values.

And that is how values can grow into value.

About the Author:

Isabel Collins is a culture consultant, helping companies to nurture a sense of belonging.

Isabel runs her company Belonging Space and podcast OnBelonging, as well as writing for HR Zone and regular conference-speaking.

Isabel developed original models and process for The Belonging Framework and previously published research on ‘The Value of Values’ in FTSE100 companies.

Isabel has over 30 years  experience, with clients including BP, EY, Rolls Royce, Network Rail, The Royal Society of Chemistry, The Royal College of Physicians, and Cranfield University.

Leave a Reply