Are organisational values just pointless business buzzwords?

Organisations spend a lot of time (and money) defining their organisational values. But what’s the value in values? Rob Tate explains why values, when implemented properly, contribute to positive culture and performance gains.

The concept of organisational values is relatively simple:

  • Ethics are the day to day habits, behaviours or actions which reflect the organisation’s morality (what it considers to be right or wrong);
  • Values are the ethics that an organisation values most.

You believe lying and stealing are wrong, for example, so integrity is one of your ethics. If you feel particularly strongly about this (such as working in an industry where integrity is particularly important, like accountancy) then you might make it one of your organisational values. We have lots of ethics, covering the whole spectrum of what we consider to be good behaviour, but only a few are so important to us that they define our character and make us unique from other organisations. These are our values.

Since every organisation has morality and ethics every organisation also has values (the ethics they value most), whether or not they’re conscious of them. This is important because it’s the reason organisations should consciously consider what their values are and communicate them clearly. We need to be conscious of our values, or we might unconsciously start prioritising the wrong ethics.

Competing priorities

If we prioritise the wrong ethics, we’ll see results we don’t want. We might believe it’s good to work quickly, but we also believe that doing a good job is important. These can be seen as competing priorities though most would agree that it’s more important to do a good job than a quick job – quality takes time. If we aren’t conscious about our values, then we won’t necessarily make this choice, and could subconsciously value working quickly over doing the best job possible.

This sort of conflict between ethics arises every day. We’ve seen examples of more serious conflicts recently in the scandals affecting performance sport, where conflict between high performance and athlete welfare led to negative outcomes.

An individual’s values

To add further complication, every individual has their own personal set of ethics and values. Without conscious consideration of organisational values, you not only have to deal with unintended outcomes from organisational actions, but also the possibility of completely different outcomes, depending on the individuals involved. The purpose of organisational values is to set down the organisation’s way of doing things, making sure everyone is on the same page and that the organisation develops a recognisable way of working.

Being conscious of our values allows us to reap the benefits of a united approach to our work. In establishing this united approach, a framework for decision making, we can have much greater confidence in delegating decision making and giving more autonomy to staff and volunteers. The board might be the ultimate decision makers for the organisation, but they can’t be there all the time, and it’s in everyone’s interest for the board to delegate operational decision making to the executives.

When are organisational values pointless? When they don’t represent the real values of the organisation, or when they aren’t communicated or well understood by those who should be upholding them. You can’t just copy the values from another organisation, or pick words you like the sound of.

What makes values effective?

  • They are tailored to your organisation

Don’t borrow someone else’s values and don’t pick lots of values just because you think they’re things you should support. We all have lots of potential values because we have lots of ethics. Think about your organisation, consult with your staff and stakeholders, and come up with a tailored set of values that reflect your organisation, rather than a catch all set of nice-sounding adjectives. And don’t focus on fitting them in to a helpful acronym. If it works it works, but don’t force it.

  • They are easy for everyone to understand

The best way to avoid your values sounding like jargon is to avoid writing in jargon. Keep it short, keep it concise and write in plain English. But remember to include some context as well – help people interpret your values. If they aren’t easily understood they won’t be easily implemented. 

  • They are communicated clearly

Tell people what your values are. Make it part of the induction for staff and board members. Publicise your values to everyone (along with your mission and vision), then make a reputation among your stakeholders for upholding them. When communicating your values, it helps that they’re easily understood (see above) and that there aren’t too many. Four or five should be plenty. If we can’t remember them all, then they won’t be useful.

  • They are upheld and demonstrated by the organisation’s leadership

Leadership needs to come from the front. If the organisation’s leaders don’t demonstrate the values, then they can’t expect those values to be demonstrated by anyone else. Everyone in the organisation needs to understand and recognise the values in play, and this can be done most effectively when leaders within the organisation are prepared to demonstrate them on a daily basis.

A statement that encompasses your values is pointless if your values are done wrong. They become just another block of text squirreled away on the website for people to ignore. But if you’re conscious of your values, tailor them to yourorganisation and communicate them effectively then they can form the bedrock of an effective and successful business.

There is value in having values.