reading between the lines
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Getting values programmes right
Communication, respect, integrity, excellence
Progressive, Performance driven, Responsible, Innovative
Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence, Stewardship
Question: What have all these sets of company values got in common?
Answer: They all came from companies (Enron, BP (2009), Barclays) that have suffered extensive damage to their reputation and business performance as a result of failures in their corporate culture.
Having a set of articulated values is now one of the totems of any large company. They are written on the walls, carved in stone in reception and the CEO announces them with a great fanfare. During implementation, extensive internal comms campaigns are run, employees invent mnemonics to remember them, funky little ‘gizzits’ are handed out and HR devises a way to include them in performance reviews. In short, they should have enough impetus behind them to guarantee success.
Why then do so many values programmes fail? They may not all become mired in reputational catastrophe, but a good number have no demonstrably positive impact. Indeed they may even seem still-born, another bit of management-speak foisted on the company and met by a roll of the eyes and a wave of deep cynicism – both internally and externally – from the moment they are announced.
At the risk of appearing overly cynical myself, it seems that values programmes are often used as a lazy approach to fixing a culture. Simply write some non-contentious words, get carving, and let the magic happen.
The reality is that more work is needed by everyone involved. Here are three reflections on ensuring a ‘values programme’ succeeds:
- Get to the behaviours. Asked which of the British Army’s values he could relate to as he stood knee-high in a trench in the pouring rain, a young recruit answered ‘Pride – I am going to dig the best trench in the company’. The Commanding Officer, if asked the same question, would have given a different reply but it too would have exemplified ‘Pride’. Word perfect recital of the values statements is not the thing to focus on – demonstrable behaviours are. While values and top-level behaviours are inevitably company-wide, each needs clearer definition in language that is appropriate for the individual who is meant to live it. At the behavioural level integrity, for example, will look different in the finance department than on the manufacturing shop floor.
- Get engagement. Values statements (particularly when ‘one-worders’ like respect, integrity etc) bounce off employees if there is no engagement to root them. While defining a company’s values is a leadership responsibility they must be bought into by everyone. There can be two aspects to this – initial consultation to ensure the proposed values (and behaviours) are likely to be effective and, once decided upon, further engagement to ensure they are adopted at a local level.
- Get leadership involved. If demonstrable frontline behaviour is where an outsider discovers if a company lives its values, then its leadership is where those inside the organisation see it. Leadership at the highest level is responsible for making sure the values are aligned to the company’s purpose and strategy, while leadership at all levels must model them consistently. There is a more active part that every leader has to play too. It involves ensuring the desired behaviours are understood by their team and then having the courage to make sure everyone lives them.
Despite the cynicism and devaluation that surrounds company values programmes, I suspect they will endure as a familiar part of corporate life. In themselves they are not a bad thing, they just need careful thought, commitment and more than a sharp chisel to make them effective.
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Coode Associates supports and advises companies on leadership and organisational effectiveness and alignment, identifying Purpose and Values and on culture-shaping more generally. If you’d like to speak with us, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.Back to Insights