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Organisational Values Debate


I would like to hear views, opinions or experiences of identifying and publishing a set of organisational values.
Are values something that individuals can state on behalf of a company, or does the whole organisation need to be involved? What are the criteria for 'living by the values', i.e. to what extent can they be broken (if at all) before becoming worthless. What are the key risks, and who owns those risks?

Ok, so it's a big question, but any views would be welcome.

Steve Adlard

6 Responses

  1. Values are Important
    Values are central to creating an organisation in which everyone rows in the same direction. They provide focus and remind everyone in the organisation of their obligations.

    There is probably no place for individual values that are incongruent with org values. If you take the pay, you need to promote the values of the org paying you. If individual values and org values are incongruent, then perhaps individuals need to find a job elsewhere.

    Texas Instruments once had an online ‘organisational fit’ questionnaire. People wanting to apply for employment worked their way through the questionnaire. If their values didn’t fit those of TI, they were advised to consider going elsewhere. Perhaps that was a sound approach to reducing applications from unsuitable people.

    Because I work for an Australian Government org, the values I need to practice are encompassed in an Act of Parliament. They are not negotiable and must be followed or penalties can be applied.

    The risk that I don’t follow them is reduced by them being integral to my performance management agreement and integral to the agreements between my subordinates and me.

    A financial institution (large by Australian standards) for which I worked had the values:

    1. Customer, customer, customer
    2. Team work
    3. Responsibility and ownership
    4. Integrity

    Short, succinct, but very useful in telling the 34,000 staff members what was required of them.

    Hope this is of use to you.

  2. Organisational values

    In my experience the degree of success in implementing organisation values is dependent upon how the organisation develops and implements its values, and having a clear strategy.

    Imposing a set of ‘values’ from the top in an organisation may result in a level of compliance by employees. When organisational values conflict with personal values, employees may adopt the associated behaviours in order to survive in the environment. Alias Porter describes the consequences of this ‘masking’ of behaviour in his work on Motivational Values. The level of compliance with imposed values is unpredictable as it is dependent on the motivation of each employee.

    Some organisations adopt a bottom-up approach to values development, which can achieve greater commitment because more employees can be involved in the process. Commitment by senior management is vital to a successful outcome. This approach is better suited to flatter organisations and democratic management styles.

    Values must underpin a clearly defined and communicated strategy. If they do not, individuals are likely to concentrate on delivery of the organisations values without regard for the aim and purpose of the organisation. The likely result is a business that is a great place to work, but not for very long!

    If employees adopt the values it becomes self-policing with those straying too far from acceptable behaviours being brought back into line by their peers. In a top-down approach it remains a management responsibility as Robin Henry describes.

    You asked about risk and I would suggest the greatest risks are, choosing an approach that does not fit with the organisation and failing to have a strategy that is shared and understood by all. Ultimately those accountable to the Stakeholders are probably owners of the risk regardless of approach. I believe a bottom up approach to be less of a risk and likely to deliver greatest benefit but only if the culture of the organisation is able to embrace the outcomes.

  3. Values as levers
    I’ve found it useful over the years to define what is meant by values and to redefine in terms of organisational and individual values. The work of Edgar Schein is particularly useful in this respect as he aligns values with assumptions we make about the world that are eventually interpreted and manifest themselves as behaviours.

    I have found that ‘fixed’ values sets often lead to strange situations arising especially when companies espouse a set of values (usually externally focused and sound-bite positive) but are perceived by employees to operate a different values set internally. Thus you sometimes get the absurd situation whereby employees do not value themnselves as customers of the organisation. In one firm I worked for this fact led to much hand-wringing behaviour by the MD but its basis was totally ignored. They are no longer in business.

    The question of ownership is an interesting one. Why should anyone ‘own’ the Values? Surely if they are shared by all then ownership is conferred upon all employees. Thus, ‘living by the values’ becomes part of the unarguable culture of the organisation – ‘the way we do things’ if you like. That ‘we’ is collective and not the exclusive property of an individual.

    Employee share ownership is an innovation that has, for many organisations, cemented the concepts of performance excellence and reward as value driven behaviours. Having a’share’ in company performance is a useful cultural ‘lever’ and may increase allegiance and loyalty.

    The key risk as I see it is around having a ‘blueprint’ values set. And here I would argue we have the interesting concept of core values (those that are immutable) and work values that change to meet changing circumstances. One way to look at this risk is to view core values as fixed standards and work values as flexible but operating within the standard framework. My own preference is for the concept that values underpin our strategy and tactics; emerging as business conditions change but always within agreed, shared values standards.

  4. Bottom up / Top Down
    The conceptual problem with some of the writing on values is the failure to credit that they will exist whether they are intentional and focused, or unplanned and uncontrolled (i.e. accidental) and are made in the process of day to day working.Many seem to assume that an organisation or a team takes on the values of its leaders. Whereas this does have a merit, the fact is that there is not one set of values in play. If the values are reflective of the line of least resistance, then a different face to the outside world will be presented than if organisational values are generated through guided, reflective, practice. There is a constant interplay in search of homeostasis between intent and content. This is not to deny the fact that values, and “ethos”, cannot be affected and directed, but what you want and what you’ve got might be a function of where you stand, for the view changes with your relationship to the organisation in question.

    Publish by all means, but without the ability for the organisation to learn, cherish and internalise them (and you had better be sure they are the right ones because successfully integrated values are going to be very difficult to change) it is irrelevant as to how they are espoused. The risks are that a good deal of time, effort, money and goodwill are spent uselessly. Finally, “Do as I say not as I do” is the point where values fall down. Walk the talk.

  5. Values – the life-blood of an organisation
    Publishing a set of corporate values is absolutely vital. Not living by them is then not an option. I once worked for an MD who (I soon discovered) operated to his own personal values of ‘you do what I tell you to do’ and ‘information control’ (two values that some governments would no doubt readily support). Of course, if you’d asked him what he thought his company values were he would have come up with something more apposite. The point is – his values were not published and so I felt I had no firm ground on which to stand to confront these behaviours. We just got into arguing. So I left!

    ‘Mission’ (what we want to achieve in the next 3-8 years and ‘Strategy’ (how we are going to do it) are things that will change over time – in response to your customers, the markets, your competitors etc. But ‘Values’ don’t change. They don’t just underpin your strategy, they are your organisation’s integrity. They underpin everything you do – always. If any individual does not agree with your corporate values then unless they can live with the differences they should leave. But woe unto any organisation that publishes its values and then behaves differently. Your behaviour should be consistent with your values. There’s no other way to be. Publish your values and live by them – they are the life-blood of your business.

  6. Values First?
    Reading the interesting comments on organisational values has prompted me to ask a question of my on-line colleagues.

    For me, values underpin the strategy, vision and mission of any organisation however large or small it is. Therefore, I always recommend to my clients and co-workers that they define, discuss and agree their organisational values before they move on to the rest in order to build the organisation’s strategy on those values.

    However, the EFQM Excellence Model et al, plus many of my associates, define the vision, then the mission or purpose with values coming third. I cannot get my head round this! I would very much appreciate others’ comments on this. Thank you.


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