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Insights | 15.05.2019

Values are more than words on the wall

We’ve been doing a lot of work with values recently and the same questions are popping up: Do we really need company values? How do you get people to buy-in to them? Are they really more than words on the wall?

I’m not sure if there’s one definitive answer to any of these questions, but here’s my take on them.

Do we really need company values?

Absolutely, but there’s lots of opportunity to do things differently.

At their best, a company’s values are at the very heart of its brand and culture. They capture its spirit and personality and are a point of differentiation. Having clear (and genuine!) values also helps people to understand how a business matches up against what they believe in personally so you can recruit and retain the right employees.  

On a more practical level, values should run through every function and level of an organisation to guide how people behave, make decisions and work in a way that embodies what the company stands for.

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave them over everything you do” Elvis Presley

But according to Gallup, only 27% of employees actually believe in their company values. And just 23% of employees strongly agree that they can apply their organisation’s values to their work every day.

What’s going wrong? 

Usually it’s down to a couple of things:

  1. Company values say one thing, but people – particularly leaders – do another.
  2. Values aren’t seen, heard or felt beyond the company website or onboarding presentation.

Why does it matter?

Values should reflect a company’s culture. When employees believe in them, they live and breathe what an organisation stands for through their actions, decisions and interactions with customers, colleagues and stakeholders. When employees don’t believe in them, there’s no common thread running through the organisation; nothing to guide actions and behaviours, and nothing to intentionally protect or shape a company’s culture. 

How can we do things differently?

We often see values as single word statements that are open to interpretation and lack specific meaning or guidance for what they look like in practice.

Be different by making values actually mean something. 

Think about how you can be specific about what your values actually are and how they might be seen through actions and behaviours. For those of you who are fans of setting good objectives, think about how you can make your values SMART.

Some companies are doing this really well. They’ve thrown away corporate statements in favour of ‘culture codes’, ‘culture decks’ or guides to ‘the way we do things’. They blur the lines between values and behaviours so that people have something tangible and practical to live by, and they’re articulated in a way that shines with their personality.

How do you get people to buy-in to company values?

Lots of people ask this question. For me, it’s partly about getting buy-in (if that means creating a shared understanding and belief), but mostly about making them a real part of people’s everyday actions. But to answer the question:

1. Make sure your company values are right for you

Whether you’re starting from scratch or trying to embed your existing ones, start by taking a step back and questioning whether your values are authentic, specific and actionable. It’s OK for them to be a little aspirational, but they should reflect what you already do when you’re at your best and shouldn’t contradict your business processes. Involve your people in this process.

2. Communicate them effectively 

And that’s not just meeting room names and posters. Create conversations across the organisation so your people can make their own connections and understand what they really mean to them practice.

3. Make them part of your business: 

If your values are what you believe in and how you do things, they should be visible everywhere; from decision making, and performance reviews to regular line manager conversations and recruitment activity. The more practical you can make it, the more embedded and meaningful they will become.

4. Role model from the top  

Give your values the credibility they deserve by making sure leaders embody them. If they can’t be bothered, why should anyone else?

5. Review them 

Whilst values should have a good shelf life, businesses change… and cultures change with them. Don’t be afraid to review your values and keep them true to who you are and who you need to be.

So are they really more than words on the wall?

Well, that’s entirely up to you and the role you want your company values to play.

Organisations have the choice to make values meaningful and reap the benefits that they will bring to their people and their business. If they are only words on the wall, it might be worth looking into some more interesting artwork – that might be more valuable.