It’s a tired trope; a new set of company values, trotted out by the senior management team at an all-hands meeting and posted up around the office, the corners gently curling over time, extra letters added to certain words by the office joker. Values often smack of ‘do as I do’-ism, with few senior staff paying them little more than lip service after the first week – or worse, being used as a stick to berate employees when they don’t perform well.
Company values are certainly being tested right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone. But why do so many company values fail? And are they worth holding onto at all?
Take a stand
First and foremost, I do believe that company values are worth keeping. I believe that their failure is more often than not a failure of execution, planning and responsibility, rather than an inherent failing in the values themselves.
The USP of a company is something that can and should influence everything that it says and does. For example, as of March 2020, Primark still does not have an online shop. The brand is all about browsing, buying in volume, and the in-store experience. Ikea’s brand experience is all about affordability, the inescapable nature of its store layouts, friendly staff and great meatballs.
If your brand has a USP – and I do hope it does – then values are a natural extension of this. For example, one of Ikea’s values is cost-consciousness. I’d challenge you to tell the difference between a piece of furniture bought from Argos and one bought from Ikea (Billy shelves aside!) – but the experience of going into a store, or even buying on the two websites is radically different. This difference percolates through from a company’s USP, from its strategy, and ultimately, from its people.
And as Ed Catmull, formerly of Pixar, says in his book Creativity Inc, your company will have a culture whether you like it or not; your only choice is whether or not to be involved in setting it!
Company values are no different – your staff will behave as they see fit, and in the ways dictated and demonstrated by their managers, and their managers in turn. The CEO who walked on-stage at an all-hands meeting brandishing a paintball gun (true story!) and told staff “I could shoot you right now, but I don’t need to – you work for me, I own you” says far more about company values than any poster put up by the HR team. Chris Pearse, author of the Broken CEO, says that behaviour trumps values every time, but I’d say this is a point of semantics. Your behaviour is your values – or to get biblical about it ‘faith without works is dead’.
Doing the Right Thing
Values spread from the top, but also from the bottom. So whilst a key part of a successful company values programme is making sure that your leadership team lives and breathes the values, making sure that your HR team is hiring in line with your values is also crucial. After all, it’s a relatively straightforward matter to teach skills to a new hire – it’s much harder to teach the right attitude.
This makes it absolutely key that hiring teams understand the attitudes, behaviours and approaches that candidates have, and making sure that they match what the company stands for. Having to send an employee on a training course is an easy feat – correcting cultural conflict and tension is not.
As well as being desirable traits, a statement of values is essentially a permission document. Like the laws of a country, it gives employees permission to do something – or not to do it. If one of your company values is ‘brave’, for example, then you shouldn’t reprimand staff for trying new things.
Of course, it’s also important to apply a little human common sense to values. There will be times when it’s not appropriate to uphold a particular company value – or times when they conflict in a given situation. It would be all too easy, for example, for our Firefly company values of ‘determined’ and ‘team spirited’ to clash, as we drive each other mad with a fanatical devotion to one challenge or another. Again, those who take values rigidly or as an excuse to beat employees over the head will generally find them not being upheld!
Tying it all up
In short, a good set of values creates an ethos, a feeling, a set of behavioural permissions, similar to a vision and mission statement. We love Showpad’s mantra of being ‘good natured ass kickers’ – and its values reflect this, including humility, simplicity, togetherness and diversity, to name but a few. It’s an expression of company intent.
After all, as I’ve said, there are many companies doing the same thing, making the same thing, offering the same service today. What makes each one stand out is not only its brand, style and reputation, but how its employees conduct themselves. Can you imagine ordering a pristine new iPhone, only to find that it’d been hastily thrown into its box, rather than being the minimalist, joyous un-boxing experience that we all expect today? That’s a matter of staff behaviour – and staff behaviour is a matter of values, whether you choose to get involved in them or not.
If you need help establishing your company values, Firefly runs a series of workshops helping leaders and communications teams in understanding their own history, purpose, vision, mission and values – as well as how to communicate this and ‘walk the talk’. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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