Too many values live only on posters; it takes hard work to encourage employees to live and breathe them in their daily work, writes Jane Sparrow

On Valentine's day, a customer service manager at Coloplast, a global medical products and services company, asked his team to bring in a photo of a loved one. In the morning team meeting, the manager gave everyone the gift of a photo frame and encouraged them to display the image on their desk. This, he explained, was to act as a reminder that every single caller was also a much-loved husband, mother, grandparent or friend and, in the spirit of the organisation’s commitment to ‘customer excellence’, should be treated as such. It’s a simple but wonderful example of inspiring employees to deliver an organisational value.

Like 'engagement', the word 'values' is overused. What we're really talking about is what we value as a company, and how that drives the way we work and behave. Yet this often gets lost in elaborate language and abstract posters.

In our three key pillars of culture – what we believe, how we behave and what we use* – the mouse mats, posters and screensavers are part of the tools and processes that enable engagement. If we want people to truly believe in values and behave in a way that is aligned with them, we need to invest much more in the first two pillars to explain our corporate ‘why’, and what that looks like in everyday behaviour.

The way an organisation describes its values is often very different to how its employees and customers describe them. We work with companies to redefine their values models, often supporting them in reaching out to their employees, customers and other stakeholders to understand their perceptions of how they do business and what appears to be important to the company. This is often a ‘look through the fingers’ job on hearing the results – but it can be an insightful, positive experience if approached in the right way. Once an organisation is empowered with this knowledge, setting about redefining and reintroducing their values can be a much more fruitful process.  

Understanding your values is one thing, but translating that understanding into a creative proposition that your people believe in is quite another. When media company Discovery wanted a way to express its values that was easy for people to understand and put into practice, it chose to talk about ‘growth traits’. These aimed to bring values to life by expressing the behaviours associated with each of them; for example, one value was ‘creativity’, and its growth trait was ‘innovation’. This meant employees thought about what they could do to be innovative, such as by reading about a new trend or competitor ahead of a brainstorm. By focusing on the growth trait, people were helped to live the values through action.  

The other corporate phrase that gets used a lot is ‘living the values’. But organisations and leadership teams need to spend time embedding and sustaining values for this to happen. CooperVision, a manufacturer of contact lenses, wanted to dial up how much it lived its value to be ‘inventive’ and, as part of this, we designed and delivered workshops to help people to focus on the everyday, practical ways they could deliver a culture of inventiveness. Central to this was busting the myth that being inventive was only about coming up with alternative, ‘crazy’, resource-intense ideas. Engaging with employees in this way brought the value to life and gave it significance for each individual so that they felt empowered to go and ‘live it’.

For organisational values to genuinely become the heartbeat of a business, they need to live and breathe in every area of the business. Community Health Partnerships relaunched their values as ‘The CHP Way’ – the way in which employees were expected to behave and do business to exceed customer expectations. The CHP Way has been brought to life in every aspect of the organisation, from the appraisals process to recruitment, to aggressively align behaviours from the top down, right through the heart of the business. Employees’ KPIs and annual performance ratings are now based on achievement of objectives throughout the year as well as, critically, the way they were achieved.

Putting your money where your mouth is has always been vital when it comes to corporate values; for example, if the leadership is not seen to be making decisions based on the values, they’re dead in the water. If employees do not feel they are being treated in line with the values, the same thing happens. What we value defines us as human beings. It drives every decision we make and the way we live our lives. It is no different when it comes to corporate values. Organisations that understand what they are, why that is and what drives them to be successful, and that carefully craft their organisational values in a language that speaks to their employees and customers, and behave in total alignment with that, will reap the rewards.

* Copyright: The Culture Builders

Jane Sparrow is an author, culture expert and founder of The Culture Builders