Company values can either be relatively abstract words, viewable on a poster in a corridor somewhere, or they can be active processes used to drive cohesive group action.
Corporate values that are decided by a marketing team, senior leaders, or an external agency, are often bold and inspiring. However, they might not truly reflect what is most important – the values – of the people who make your business happen. Values-alignment is more than just having employees “buy in” to your stated values – it happens when people actively engage these values in every aspect of their work (and beyond).
The importance of active values
Many organizations use nouns as their values. An example of this is: Bold, Innovate, Perform. While these words are impactful, they’re not easy to apply. First, there is ambiguity: am I supposed to be bold? Or is it a collective boldness? What does bold actually mean? What if I’m an introvert? Immediately, we’ve excluded a large portion of the workforce who may not be customer facing or may not be bold in character.
Instead, we need to ensure that the values chosen are verbs. See the difference in this values statement: Boldness, Innovation, Performance. I can identify more easily with an active value. I may be an introvert, but I surely can see how as an organization we aim to behave with boldness. In fact, this value may inspire the introverted employee to learn some new skills in order to align with the value.
Values need to be actionable. A leader must be able to say to their team: Did we act with boldness in that particular situation? If not, then we are clearly misaligned and there is space for improvement. If we did act boldly and experienced a bad outcome, then at least we’re all aligned in our behaviors. It is ok to fail if we have acted in alignment. It is not ok if we were not aligned. This is the foundation of trust.
An example of values in action:
Tom is preparing a proposal for a $150,000 customer project. The customer calls Tom at 9pm and says he needs the proposal by 6am and can only afford $130,000 as they are relying on a government grant. If Tom doesn’t meet the price requirement the customer will choose another vendor. Tom’s company don’t allow late night emails and he would never call his boss at 9pm to ask for guidance. Tom must make a call. His manager said the minimum acceptable quite was $150,000 but he is aware that the company really needs the cashflow.
A core value in his organization is Boldness. Tom decides he will forsake his commission and provide a quote that he knows the customer will accept. He sends a proposal and copies his boss (that is bold!). In the morning he calls his boss and clearly outlines his decision-making process. He states: “I know how important a project of this scale will be to our cash flow so I acted boldly and would like to forego my commission to meet customer requirements. I indicated to the customer that payment would be required before project activation. We are now guaranteed to receive $130,000 in the next two weeks.”
This is a real situation I have encountered. In the end the boss rewarded Tom’s boldness by indicating that he could receive commission on the deal. Calculated risks are something Tom’s company values.
The importance of bottom-up values
When setting values, it is tempting to select a few words that sounds dynamic and edgy. Those involved in the creation process imagine how the values will look on the website and which kinds of job candidates will apply after reading them. The problem is that many workplaces are not all that dynamic or edgy. In your average business you’ll find a collection of individuals tasked with specialist work that is often repetitive and exhausting. At the end of the day, many organisations value profit over all else. Therefore, employees are viewed as a resource from which value can be extracted. Immediately here we open the possibility for value misalignment – or even outright contradiction.
As a business, don’t state that you value Respect if that doesn’t extend to how you treat staff. If they are a commodity then be clear and you’ll attract people who align with your reality. It is perfectly acceptable for a company to value Profit or Shareholder Value above all else. Part of the values journey is respecting what is important to others – what we call values diversity.
To avoid setting values that don’t truly align with your team, we recommend starting with a values discovery process that includes all staff. You can discover values organically by simply walking around and asking people. You might distribute lists of values and ask people to select those that resonate most strongly. Alternatively, you can also use a tool like the Values App to quickly discover what the common values in a group are.
It is amazing in the real world to see which values are really most important to an organisation. Recently I worked with a company and one of their top values turned out to be Harmony. An external agency or marketing department would be hard pressed to discover such a subtle commonality.
Upon identifying an interesting value such as this – shared by a significant portion of the team – we can start to unravel what it means. The team had been experiencing significant growth and disruption. What employees craved was a sense of order and stability – harmony individually and collectively. Now, we might not be able to ever achieve true harmony but there are things we can control – like how we behave, how we interact, building processes and maintaining a sense of equilibrium. In biology we call this state homeostasis. Leaders can subsequently initiate conversations such as, “how can we achieve harmony in the office, including while working remotely?” or “what does harmony mean to our customers?”
Discovering a value such as this can transform a growing organisation, helping to shape the culture and guide leadership.
Soliciting values from the bottom-up doesn’t mean that an organisation must use them all. Some may be inappropriate or reflect nostalgia or old perspectives. Imagine collecting values from the population within a traditional investment bank. The values might be Success, Power and Courage. However, leadership at the firm have committed to balancing short-term success with long-term sustainability. Can we find a common ground? Of course. We mix aspirational values – where we’re going – with intrinsic values – who we are.
The key is that we have co-created the values that are most important to us.
Inspiring values alignment
Values are tiny compasses that guide our behaviour. We all have a set of values that we have formulated over the course of lives. These are determined by our environment, our culture, events that have transpired, the situation we are in.
There are a set of baseline survival values that we all share. In our modern world these values are usually connected to our income. If our livelihood is threatened, we will experience our default nervous system response to threat: fight, flight, or freeze. It is not that different to how we would react if we were told that a grizzly bear is prowling the neighbourhood.
When the livelihood of your people is at stake you’ll find hostility, fear and procrastination persist. This is natural and normal. People value their own survival most. That is why we find suicide so alarming, because someone no longer valued their own survival. In fact, they took action to terminate – rather than support – the processes that enable life. Addiction is another example of how we sabotage our survival through repetitive behaviours that do not support wellbeing. These are complex challenges but identifying values – or lack thereof – can seriously help people who are experiencing despair.
Author Johann Hari states in his fantastic book, Lost Connections, “You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values you’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natural world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure future. You need connections to all these things.”
Aligning your team to a set of values requires first considering whether their baseline needs are being met. Are they treated fairly? Do leaders provide a level of transparency that engenders trust? Even in times of great instability, it is possible to foster an environment of collaboration if trust exists. Your values should be trustworthy and reliable, even if the world is not.
Once baseline needs are secured it is time to inspire the group to act in accordance with the values you have, ideally, co-created. Now is the time to share your top 5 values, or your top 3. Fewer are better. You may like to add a short sentence to each value to make it more relevant and useful. However, aim for minimalism and simplicity.
In an example above, a company decided that Boldness was an important value. How might we make this something people can live and breathe?
How to align employees with company values
- Add a short sentence to describe the action you would like to see. For example: “Boldness – we trust each other to take calculated risks”
- Encourage leaders to make each value relevant to their teams. For example: “We’re the accounting team, how can we be bolder?” Continue the co-creation process long after the values have been stated.
- Check in every week to find examples of how the values have been applied in real situations.
- Get the team to work in groups to create paintings that represent each value (this was a wonderful exercise completed by a group we worked with). Alternatively, create a shared online values board (Miro is a good tool for this).
- Provide teams with a tracking tool to rate their alignment, week-by-week. Our Values App provides this functionality.
- Place values in your email signature.
- Seek out Value Ambassadors – people who demonstrate high-level alignment. Appoint them as guardians of the company values and ask them to act as change agents.
- When discussing opportunities and challenges use your core values to describe the required actions or behaviors. For example, “Can we boldly decline that project so that we can focus on our existing initiatives?”
The objective is that the team are so familiar with the values that their decision-making compasses are tuned to applying them in everyday situations. This is purposeful action.
Aligning a team to a set of values requires respecting that each person’s individual values might be different. This is values diversity. Our journeys through life are all different and we must respect this. We must understand value plasticity – knowing that people do change. Imagine a person’s values before and after having their first child. They’re often worlds apart.
Involve people in the value creation process so that they’re invested in bringing them to life. Then leave breadcrumbs – in conversation, tools, meetings and, yes, even that poster in the corridor.
Eventually values will become core to the culture. They become “how we do things around here”. And when you reach that day, you may realize that it is time for change. Just as a person’s values can change, so do organizational values change. A startup may value disruption at first, but as it matures it values stability and eventually philanthropy. The journey of actualization is built upon tiny decisions, and tiny decisions are driven by values. Aligned decisions by many, result in real change and transformation.