We may or may not be aware of personal and organizational values. We may not even think about them. Sometimes we mix them with other “stuff.’’ But they are always there with us, inside of us and around us and – most of all – visible in the way we behave.
Values are principles or standards of behavior, one’s code of what is important in life. They are the basic and fundamental decision-making DNA that guides one’s actions and helps to weigh options, determining what is important. Based on one’s values, one chooses the personal qualities to embody, the kind of person one wants to be, how to treat oneself and others and, in general, one’s interactions with the world. It's a shorthand way of describing one’s motivations–values are the energetic containers of one’s aspirations and intentions.
Values create the baseline so that work can happen. If values don’t sync with employees and the nature of the business, it disturbs everyone’s creative process. That’s why values are minimal accepted standards, not lofty aspirations. When values sync among the team and through the organization, they are almost unnoticeable—like the air we breathe or the floor on which we walk.
There are a myriad of ways to approach core organizational activities: charting strategies, plans, decision-making, measuring and rewarding desired outcomes. It's not only important to know how a business should be managed (teams, individuals, processes), but also what kind of attitude, behaviors, and beliefs are welcome on that path and which ones aren't. Choosing a way to design and implement these organizational activities so they are right for the specific conditions of an organization is easier when “the compass” works.
One can look at values as one’s internal compass and as the internal compass of the organization. Values represent how an individual and an organization will walk the path towards its purpose.
Establishing values in an organization is a grand, long-term responsibility. It’s a constantly evolving process that should be approached with care, patience and stamina. People with the highest expression of these traits are usually found in senior management.
While several techniques can be used to define values, the challenging part that puts values on the sidetrack in most organizations is the execution of implementation. Before introducing values to the teams, it’s worth being clear and aligned on what’s expected from the investment in values in reality.
Three things usually cause headaches when it’s time to implement the fancy idea(l)s within value statements.
Do defined values line up with the nature of your business and/or industry? Are defined values able to be expressed in practical everyday business? Will they inspire people? Is the management able to be a role model for them? Is the organization as a whole able to maintain the defined values in the long run? Optimally, the answer to all should be “yes." All possible threats that could turn the answer into a “no” should be identified openly, without fear, expressed by people at any level or position.
Values can get people fired
If the organization is already established and has a lot of employees, the implementation period should be considered as a project equally valuable to other key projects. Employees (and also processes and culture) need time and coaching to get on the same page about values. However, after the implementation period, there should be zero tolerance for not respecting values. This sometimes requires some hard actions, from a purely instrumental perspective, including letting go of great performers, because they don’t fit the culture anymore – that is, they refused to realign with defined values.
Values can get people hired
The same serious role of values can become present during hiring interviews. In parallel with a focus on obvious areas (a candidate’s competencies, expertise, etc.), the hiring manager can screen through each value to ascertain the specific view of the candidates – or simply have the values in the back of their mind, and check the organizational values against what the candidates present. A hiring manager should also be aware that expressed opposites of organizational values are usually non-negotiables (instant NOs).
Simply put, being soft and cheap (metaphorically) about investing in culture will not yield the desired deep-rooted change in people’s behavior.
Personalization is the cradle of ownership. When one establishes values within an organization, it is not the organization that changes, but the individuals inside it. Each individual does not simply replace one’s own values for organizational values. Rather, everyone aligns their personal compass with the compass of the organization. In this way, values are the foundation, but individuals bring that extra spark into the organization’s culture. Once individuals feel this alignment of organizational values and their personalized expression of them, they are motivated to care for value alignment themselves. Employees begin to take ownership of maintaining the values standards of the organization.
In this way, the consequent culture is co-created by the individual’s gifts, talents and the expressions of their inner values and ways of being. This is why every organization has its own culture that differs from that of other organizations – even when the values are the same. Thus, one of greatest assets is formed: a customized culture gives your organization a unique fingerprint that can’t be stolen. This fingerprint can be seen and felt everywhere—from the surface-level touch-points (communication, product) to the deepest mechanics of your business (contracts, business model).
Only when defined values are brought to life by people, and a culture is formed, can one evaluate whether the values were correctly set and realized.
It is imperative that values are not just some stickers one puts on the office walls or copies to the organization website. Visual representations of values are helpful, however values need to be apparent in the words and actions of employees. Out of all the employees at an organization, the loudest advocate for values is the example set by top management.
Everyday words and actions of leaders represent the largest portion of the conveyance of cultural code to others. This process is automatic, unplanned, and can not be faked. Leaders are role models and others will follow their behavior or pick up clues as to what is important and what is not.
Opportunities to spread one's organizational culture out into the world lie on the borders of the organization. External partners and customer relationships are not just about the exchange of value through goods, services and revenue. These interactions with the external world are also a channel of the exchange of cultural values.
Being aware of the cultural values radiated by individuals and organizations in one’s organizational proximity unlocks the ability to choose which values an organization sees beneficial to trade. Stakeholders being intentional about adopting values from their “neighbors” can reaffirm and evolve each other’s culture.