The real value of values

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There is no question that a strong sense of values boosts the quality of life and even survival of individuals. I was therefore recently intrigued but not really surprised to see a study published in the January 2012 edition of Psychological Science saying that even spending 15 minutes a day writing about values that you hold dear can help obese people lose weight. In other words concentrating on those values makes you more resolute and productive in what you set out to do.

The importance of focusing on values, particularly shared values, is seemingly accepted by business. After all, significant research particularly in the last decade has shown shared values are essential to the health of any organization’s bottom line. And if the company goes against its people’s values it is likely to be in trouble.

This is not a new or radical idea. After all, humans having been putting up “value statements” on banners, buildings, coins and other forms of currency since written language (and symbols such as heraldry) first emerged:  “e pluribus unum” (the phrase on the Seal of the United States – Latin for “Out of many, one”), “In God we Trust” (on the back of a US twenty dollar bill), or glittering concepts such as “Liberty”.

But are organizations really making the best use of values and what would it look like if we did?

Most organizations have a list of values somewhere. Often they result from an executive retreat, where the top executives go for inspiration to some beautiful locale far from the gritty reality of where their people actually work, to consume a lot of very nice food and wine and choose their favorite clichés. Sometimes these values are later voted on, at least by some level of executives.

Most of these are nice ideas. There’s rarely any real problem with the words—what’s not to like about, for example, Deloitte’s “Tell it like it is” or one law firm’s “work-life balance”?  The problem is, will they be carried out, and who has accountability for doing so?  Then there is the ubiquitous “Excellence ”, “Customer service” and “Integrity”, which does not induce loyalty, innovation or commitment but eye-roll. At best they are a management wish-list, at worst a list of words that will look good in the annual report or web site.

Some values don’t even seem to fall within the “value” category.  Some friends of mine did question one of their firm’s values, which was “commerciality.” “I’m not sure whether it means I charge clients more to bring in more money for the firm or less to be seen as committed to their business” said one. “And is it a value?”

Some firms know what their values are and have them prominently displayed, such as Deloitte’s “seven signals” which are on the back of every Deloitte person’s business cards.  Some are displayed as mandatory screensavers providing hours of amusement for the more technical minded who explore and usually quickly find means of getting rid of them. Others are gathering mold (or would be, if the documents were not electronic) somewhere in the bowels of corporate legal documents or partnership contracts. “Of course this company has strong values,” one CEO told me recently. “I’m just not quite sure what they are or… ah… where to find them.”

There has been, to my knowledge no rigorous studies as to what kinds of values work best for engaging employees and enhancing performance. Fortinberry Murray has a fair bit of experience helping companies identify, get buy in to and embed values that really do draw people together, get them thinking, and have an effect on behavior, attitudes and how they are seen by customers.

One top-tier law firm called on us to work with them to deliver a fully participatory and groundbreaking program on behavioral values as part of a culture change initiative to support their firm-wide strategy to be the firm of choice. The values of Trust, Respect and Cooperation were seen as essential to achieving this vision—values that would bring people together around a shared purpose and create a workplace where people want to work and thrive. We successfully worked with key stakeholders and partner groups nationally to refine, clarify and obtain agreement around a set of measurable behaviors that demonstrate and model the values. This exercise in itself helped increase engagement among partners as they appreciated the opportunity to come together and share hopes and concerns. As part of the implementation process, we are working closely with a partner team charged with getting buy-in to the behaviors, listening to concerns of partners, and making recommendations for embedding. We continue to broaden, embed and track the culture change process firm-wide.

Here are some guidelines for success:

  • Everyone must have buy-in.
  • The values should have a social purpose. People are inherently social creatures and values-driven and are drawn together and energized by anything that fosters a sense of shared values.
  • The values should be doable. This usually means “actions” instead of emotions or beliefs. One company we work with has a list of “things you should believe”, which is in itself a little scary. Also impossible—no one can believe anything on command.
  • The values should be understandable and concrete.
  • The values should be congruent with every firm policy and process. Adherence to core values in particular must be rewarded both financially and non-financially and there should be consequences for acting against the values no matter at what level the person is.

The truth of it is that the actual values don’t matter so long as everyone has had a say and most people have agreed to them. Then they become really important: that which unifies the organizational tribe and gets people committed to its well-being and success.

Oh, yes and they can also help you lose weight.