Valuing values

28 Mar 2021

There’s a ton of research which shows how much it matters that personal and corporate values are aligned. And that’s particularly true in large multinational or multi-sited organizations where board level executives may be less visible and their influence therefore less clear. That’s when values act as a framework that guide how things get done. 

When values aren’t clear, aren’t talked about and live only on walls and badges, employees quite reasonably behave according to their own individual value systems. And that can lead to stuff that most organizations would rather not have. Like Enron, Lehman, and Northern Rock all of whom advocated ‘customer service’ as a core value. All those boards served themselves well before they served their customers. 

We know from our own research, that when values are clear, communicated and regularly reinforced, there is greater performance, happiness, commitment, satisfaction, and motivation. Other have found this too and that on the negative side there’s also less anxiety or work stress. On top of that value congruence helps:

  • Get support to drive change

  • Reduce unethical practices

  • Promote positive work behaviour

  • Gets people to participate in challenging activities

  • Lead to a greater sense of accomplishment

One of the most important thing about values is to keep them few, clear and simple. I’ll never forget working with one extended management team.  Eighty people had been bought together on a hot summer’s day and we were all in a stuffy subterranean room. Our job was to get the group to come up with 7-10 values by which this financial services organization could live. 

By the end of the day we had an astonishing 79 values and no-one wanted to pare them down. The situation led to a crisis meeting. Unfortunately common sense didn’t prevail and those leaders wanted their employees to adopt all of those values. Needless to say that organization doesn’t exist anymore. 

The point of values is that they should be no room for manoeuvre in their interpretation. Either someone put the customer first, or they didn’t. There’s the famous example of the BA corporate culture change programme which was directed at improving customer service. It all got grounded when a senior exec bumped a customer off a transatlantic flight. Leaders have to step up and show that values are good for everyone, not just everyone else. 

 In the last 10 years Tyco, Enron, Lehman’s, Royal Bank of Scotland were in part all due to weak values which were stated but not lived by and certainly not part of the executive board’s remit. And when there’s weak leadership in relation to corporate values, bright people can try to game the system by exercising their own.

A few years ago, I interviewed Shikhar Ghosh, once dubbed a master of the internet universe and who now teaches entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School. A quietly spoken and man with a very dry humour, he told me this story about when he was CEO at technology company Appex.

“Culture is made of the values and behaviours that are acceptable. At Appex we had a flat structure, completely open offices, no dress code which actually became a big deal over time. The question arose, ‘what are the limits of no dress code?’ An engineer had come in wearing really, really short shorts and a really skimpy top, and we had a Dutch banker in looking for a robust system that had security for their worldwide deployment. And I could see him glancing at her and it just didn’t fit. After that I said that anything that could be mistaken for underwear couldn’t be worn. 

Anyway, one of the senior engineers said dress had nothing to do with performance and he’d prove me wrong. He showed up in his bathrobe and nothing else. His tattered old bathrobe didn’t have a belt, so the HR person was going crazy. The he had an interview: someone shows up in a suit and he’s there in his bathrobe. 

So we compromised. One day a month we’d have bathrobe day when anyone could come in dressed in anything. That signalled the kind of place it was where people could question anything and it greatly influenced motivation. When people feel there are rules and constraints they try and game the system and then take their talent elsewhere. 

Values need to make sense and employees need to see and feel that sense. So they need to reflect work being done and say something about what gets prioritised. 

So if you’re serious about values, think about these things. 

  • Hire for fit: make sure that every interviewee’s values are questioned so that you know they’ll support and endorse the behaviours you value. 

  • Enrol new people in the importance of values: on-boarding or orientation needs to make it clear what the values are and why they matter.

  • Refer to your organization’s values consistently and constantly both in what you as a leader say and write. If you haven’t mentioned them at least once in your working week, you haven’t referred to them enough. 

  • Build stories around them that illustrate the values in action. Talk about what people did and what their actions signify in terms of the values your organization espouses. Communicate that internally and externally.

  • Celebrate, recognize and reward difficult decisions which were guided by values. 

  • Enlist others to be ambassadors of the values: they don’t need to be senior and it’s a great way of giving junior hires visibility.

  • Pull people up who don’t live by the values:  give them feedback and explain how what they did conflicts with the organization’s values. If necessary take tough action when this continues.

If you or your organization gets this list right, then you’ll be doing a great job getting real value from your values.