Making Values Meaningful

Why are values important?

We all have values – principles or standards that determine what is important to us and what we stand for. We might not write them down or consciously think about these values but we all have them and research suggests that they are hard-wired in us by the age of 24. Research also shows that we struggle when asked to behave in ways that aren’t aligned with our values and the standards that we hold ourselves accountable to. Whilst we might go along with it, we won’t feel comfortable, will probably under-perform and will eventually find that we can’t carry on.

It would seem sensible therefore, for businesses to be clear about the values they want to project and to ensure that the people they employ have similar values, otherwise their employees won’t be happy at work or perform at their best. There are now ways of measuring corporate and individual values to assist with this process but many UK businesses continue to pay lip service to values.

The trouble with corporate values

Increasingly businesses do think about their values and are often keen to talk about them on their corporate websites and to display them on the inevitable plaque in reception. The problem is that they don’t fully understand what they are doing by making such proclamations, or how to manage the expectations they create. I am certainly not suggesting that organisations shouldn’t define and publish their values, but that they appreciate that the moment they do so, they raise expectations amongst their customers, employees and other stakeholders who expect the organisation to be true to these values at all times.

If the values are not consistently adopted by the organisation, and its leaders in particular, the organisation’s integrity, the so-called ‘say-do gap’ between what it promises and how it behaves, is immediately questioned.

And this is where the problem lies, in our experience. Businesses will happily spend the time on strategy sessions to develop a new set of values and money on designing materials to promote them, but rarely follow through and translate them into meaningful, and measurable, outputs.

Making it Meaningful

To make values meaningful, they have to be translated, via the organisation’s beliefs, into a set of tangible, measurable outputs – in other words behaviours. Behaviours are the ways in which we conduct ourselves, i.e. our actions. And the actions we take can be defined, evidenced and measured.

The diagram below illustrates the different dynamics at play that culminate in an individual’s actions, an explanation of which follows.

Our values, (the principles or standards that determine what is important to us) and beliefs, (an acceptance that something is true) are the foundations on which our behaviours are based and, if there are no other factors at play, which will directly determine our behaviours. Unlike values, which tend to be fixed, beliefs can change over time based on experience.

Of course, there are always other factors at play which influence our behaviours, such as:
• External influences – the world in which we live and the behaviours of those around us
• Internal influences – how we are feeling, physically and mentally, at a particular moment
• Environment – the place in which we find ourselves living or working
• Attitude – the positive or negative filter we use to process all the other influence

So, whilst this isn’t necessarily straightforward and there are a lot of influences at play, there are some core drivers of behaviour that we can identify and address. In the case of organisational values, these are the values themselves, the beliefs that underpin them and the behaviours that they suggest.

Once defined, behaviours can be assessed in individuals and teams, using evidence-based assessment techniques, and built into people management systems and processes, such as:

• Recruitment, selection and induction
• Performance management
• Training and development
• Talent management and succession planning
• Reward and recognition

By defining and communicating behaviours it also gives employees a reason to have conversations about behaviours, good and bad, and a benchmark against to which to assess their and other’s behaviours.

In summary, values are an important tool to use in creating a consistent approach to the way in which a business operates, although it is the management and measurement of the behaviours they suggest that makes them meaningful.

Jonathan Booth