Values – Impose At Your Own Risk

During a Question & Answer session at the CIPD conference yesterday, Simon Jones tweeted something that caught my eye. Peter Cheese, the recently appointed CIPD CEO asked a gathering of around a hundred people, ‘How many of you can recite your company values?’ Three people raised their hands. There was some surprise about the low response among the audience, but I’m not surprised at all.

From my experience, most sets of company values are utterly forgettable, and there seem to be a few consistent reasons for this:

They are imposed from above. Too often, senior management seem to think that company values are something they are responsible for setting. In an even more horrific extension of imposition, some company’s think it would be really cool to get a marketing agency to help them establish the values. Wrong. If they are going to mean something to anyone beyond the board room they should be co-created from all corners of your organisation, and maybe even beyond…?

They are just a list of words. Trustworthy, Honest, Integrity, Open, Collaborative, blah, blah, bullshit bingo. Where’s the context? Where’s the meaning? People don’t want a shopping list of buzzwords – they want something to unite and connect with. A recent piece of research by SurveyLab shows that 86% of people are committed to delivering quality work and 79% always try to contribute more than is expected of them. I think people want values to be a frame of reference that helps them to give of their best.

They are set in stone. The environment we operate in changes, and we are expected to change and adapt to cope or take advantage. I think company values have more meaning when they are reviewed in context with what you are trying to achieve. It doesn’t follow that they will definitely change, but I think they should be reconsidered and people should know about this and have the chance to have their say.

As the Q&A session continued, Sinead Carville tweeted from afar with a great suggestion. ‘Perhaps a better question might be who can give examples of their values being lived within the business? We remember stories.’ I thought this was a lovely, useful observation, stories beat shopping lists every time.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

12 thoughts on “Values – Impose At Your Own Risk”

  1. Doug, can I share a positive experience without trying to sound smug?

    Whilst we are far from having it all sewn up at my organisation, we really are making strides towards changing the way that values are perceived. We recognised last year that we needed to review our values. The values we had meant next to nothing to most people (and yes, not one person we asked even knew what they were), and people felt they did not reflect the organisation we wanted to be nor the vision we were aiming towards.

    Following a truly consultative process, new values were defined. I am very proud that one year on our new co-created values are still hitting the mark. We continue to receive positive feedback and people believe they are a true reflection of us as an aspirational organisation. Each value has an underpinning sentiment and behaviours (which were devised from outputs following our organisational away day last year) that guide the way we work.

    We weave our values into our people processes and communications (internal and external) as often as we can. We try to tie our success stories back to our values and at this year’s away day (later this month) we have a workshop where we are planning to use our values as a foundation for determining quick wins and next steps forwards towards achieving our strategy.

    As I say, we are by no means ‘there’ yet but it warms the cockles to know that we are trying :-).

  2. Now Doug – that survey about people and what they want and will do. Surveys? Ask people to rate their peers on the same questions. Ask managers to rate their teams on the same questions. Ask teams to rate their managers etc etc. Those stats I would be interested in. And ask for concrete examples. Look at well run performance management systems and the results – even those without forced gradings.

    So, to values. I have worked in an organisation (as the interim HRD) and we introduced a softer version of the GE model. And really worked hard on identifying 4 simple core values that were appropriate for the next few years planned growth. And pushed them through everything – competencies, person specs, L&D, PM, promotion, reward, hiring etc. Even over six months the impact was significant – client satisfaction levels, standard of delivery, retention, staff morale, innovation all improved. It worked. And it was up or out…. values are glue. And a framework.

    The most shocking thing about your blog is that in an HR community only 3 hands were raised out of 100. What the hell are these people doing? Criminal. And I reckon 86 hands would have gone up to say they committed to delivering quality work and 79 hands saying they always try to contribute more than is expected of them. QED my point on the survey I think!

  3. Agree entirely Doug. I am equally shocked at the low number of hands that went up.

    We have spent years embedding Values (devised by staff to replace a ‘memory test’ cocktail of imposed aims, mission etc) and they have been invaluable in helping provide a framework for decision making.

    It’s no longer on posters or a memorised mantra, but is weaved in to everything we do. Every meeting of the operating board for example has an agenda set out by value, not by department or division. We don’t even have to think about it anymore. It takes time, but it is worth it.

    Empowering those right on the edge of the organisation is not quite as duanting when everyone is trusted to be values centric.

    Authenticity requires refelction and collaboration – not imposition.

  4. I once did some work for a company where the values had been decided by groups of employees from all parts of the business. At the time, everyone worked to live up to them. It didn’t last, because they thought they had ‘done’ values, and moved on to something else.
    Another company had new values every time they had a new CEO, which was three times in five years. They were just ords on the bottom of people’s email signature.
    If you are a real values-driven organisation (oh, how I love the opportunity to use sentences like that!) everyone refers all their actions and behaviours back to the company values. If what you’re doing doesn’t fit with the values, you stop doing it. Banks might have done well to take note of that.

  5. Doug, I worked for Glaxo in the early 90’s in its manufacturing division. We had a clear set of values that linked to how we would operate, they were clear and provided a real “compass” for many of the decisions I made daily as an engineering director and for me to challenge others.
    I admit after nearly 20 years I can’t remember them, but that’s not important as they would not work for other organizations. They were specific to us and what made it a great place to work at the time.

  6. Thanks all, you have added so much to the original post. Yet again I appreciate how important it is to have a blog that is open for comment.

    Your thoughts and examples are very helpful, though I remain unsurprised by the very low level of recall among the audience because I think you folk are the exceptions, so this values stuff chimes with you.

    One further thing which arose on Twitter and I feel I should have acknowledged sooner is – where does the customer feature in all of this? Implicitly it’s hopefully obvious, and I wonder what a more extended co-created value set may look like?

    Cheers – Doug

  7. For us, our customer was reflected in the fact that we made our products to the highest standards of quality and control.
    What we could influence and what our workforce could identity with at any level. Really pertinent to a pharmaceutical manufacturer, and where our “customers” were mainly internal. Others being the regulatory authorities.
    Perhaps another example of why they can’t be copied but need to be personal and unique to the organisation.

  8. Doug – I hadn’t even contemplated that values would not be completely customer (supporter) centric! If Values are the things that are most important to you, this should be a given. Robert

  9. Customer? They were central to our values – in fact, one value was ‘client-focused’. The organisation was in trouble because customers were unhappy, and given the quality of support staff and attrition rates it was hardly surprising that customers were getting terrible service. We focused on the people to make sure that the customers got superlative service….it’s the only way.

  10. Ah, until the CIPD gets its own house in order re: values and customers I shall NOT be attending their conferences. PLUS they don’t pay speakers (well, most of them) and they can afford it, PLUS they are pretty mean re: expenses. I don’t approve of their attitude on principle – so, although a member, I am boycotting the conferences.

    No strong feelings!

    1. Your call of course, and having spent most of my time on the exhibition floor last week, which is free to enter, I think you may be missing out. #justsaying

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