Defining your organisational values

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Excellent, crisp and relevant. The powerful and dangerous "alignment gap" between what we say we are and how we behave is a crocodile-pit that requires careful navigation and regular observation.


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The most effective values are those that surface ways of working that already exist, and define some aspirational aspects

Values are the topic of many conversations within HR. How do you know what they are? Do you define them top-down or bottom-up? These questions relate to the process, but let’s take a step back for a moment and think about the purpose of defining organisational values.

What difference do they really make to your culture – are they helping your organisation to achieve its goals or are you just ticking a box because it seems the right thing to do and may help improve engagement?

It’s important to begin by considering your organisation – what are its ambitions, what is the impact of the macro-economic environment within which you operate, and where do your people fit into all that?

It’s easy to get lost in the detail, but at their core values are those things that matter most to your organisation in service of achieving its goals. A well-crafted set of values, well-understood and embedded in your organisation, can drive business performance, clarify ways of working and how it feels to be a part of the company.

For me the most effective values are those that do two things: surface ways of working that already exist, as well as defining some aspirational aspects.

Surfacing what already exists enables you to be authentic. How you do this will vary by organisation. In my experience both top-down and bottom-up can be equally effective as long as everyone feels involved. For top-down it’s providing the space for employees to make sense of the values for themselves through sharing examples they see of those values being played out, and making them part of improving the experience of their team.

In defining your aspirations you may be aware of some things that need to change. Stating these clearly through values will articulate the shift in culture needed.

It is critical for leaders to be honest with themselves about where the culture is today and where you would like it to be. Leaders then role model the values through their behaviour. This is particularly key

in small- and medium-sized organisations; there is no place to hide as leaders’ behaviours are evident on a daily basis. Larger organisations have the challenge of ensuring that all employees understand and experience a similar culture, often across different locations.

There is a temptation for individual teams to define their own values. One school of thought says this is OK as long as there is clear alignment with the rest of the business. Personally I think this leads to confusion. Values should be organisation-wide and consistent. Individual functions or teams can then consider those specific behaviours that bring these values to life.

Once you have defined the organisational values, embedding them becomes important. You might include them in your appraisal systems, publicly celebrate examples of them in practice, apply them in decision-making, or constantly evidence them in conversations in the business. You’ll need continued focus to keep them alive and evolving, perhaps through symbols such as mugs, mousemats, screensavers…

Ask your people what they want to see in the organisation – through whatever mechanisms you have in place for employee feedback. Use this insight to compare how the espoused values of the company match the lived experiences. Then take action.

Use the values as part of the recruitment process – this means you will attract those people whose values are already aligned with those of the organisation and so will feel they can be themselves at work. This doesn’t mean that your culture isn’t made up of diverse employees with different views, just that your people will be focused on delivering what matters most to the business.

Use your values to work for you, signalling and aligning your people behind what matters most to your organisation.

Sue Swanborough is HR director at Whitworths

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Excellent, crisp and relevant. The powerful and dangerous "alignment gap" between what we say we are and how we behave is a crocodile-pit that requires careful navigation and regular observation.


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