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How to set your company’s values (and why it matters)

It has been said that a business’s culture is defined and held up by the five main pillars:

Ideology – This is the “big picture”, the headline, what the business stands for and its identity.

Purpose – A business’s purpose is closely related to its ideology but should be more specific in terms of what it is setting out to achieve. Like its ideology, this should be something that inspires its people to want to be there. We know that most businesses exist to make money, but just making profit for an employer is not an inspiring purpose to most workers.

Vision – This can be described as ‘the mental image’ of what the business wants to be. It’s aspirational and forward-looking. It needs to give clear focus to its people and, therefore, leaders need to be crystal clear about it.

Values – These align with the ideology and are crucial to the culture of the business. As with the vision, these should be crystal clear to everyone. Implied, unclear, or unspoken values are open to (mis)interpretation or can be considered optional or unimportant. This is a fatal error when it is your values that define your key behaviours.

Behaviours – Defining these delivers personal accountability to a workforce. They are an expectation for your people’s output. Some may be obvious and “generic”, such as honesty and integrity, but more innovative companies may include behaviours that refer to things like collaboration, peer support, and creativity.

Of course, these five pillars are intrinsically linked, and each follows on from the one that precedes it. They are also connected by the need for effective communication. And in this context, effective means meaningful, continuous, and engaging. You cannot expect your people to take your journey with you, to buy into your vision and values or adopt your values and behaviours if you don’t advertise and explain them, sell their importance, and keep them current, relevant and relatable.

Not long ago, a company was working on its new vision and values, and they asked us to help them to define the latter. They were thorough in their thought processes, and anxious to choose the correct ones. And they were right to focus on them in this way. A company’s values really matter, both to the organisation and to its people. Recent research by Qualitrics found that values, especially well-being, honesty, and respect, are more important to workers even than higher pay. In fact, more than half of US employees would be willing to take a pay cut to work at a company with better values, and even more (56%) wouldn’t even consider a job at a company that has values they disagree with.

So, how should an organisation go about choosing (or updating) its core values?

Firstly, they should be completely bespoke, so if anyone was hoping to find here a list of twenty adjectives from which to choose their favourite five or ten, I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place. That would be a terrible way of determining the values by which you run your organisation and describe it to others.

Whilst recently supporting the business mentioned previously, we made it clear from the start that we saw our role as identifying the values that already existed and/or were realistically aspirational for them within their current purpose and structure. It would not have been appropriate for us to simply suggest some values that we think would work for a business in their sector.

What we can do is offer a few pointers to help you with the process.

Don’t confuse values with purpose and vision.

Whilst these concepts are absolutely interlinked and aligned, they are not the same. As outlined above, your purpose should be your mission statement. Why are you here? Why do you exist? What do you bring to the world? Your vision should outline where you are headed and what you want to become. Your values, then, should outline what is important to you as an organisation and as a collection of individuals. It's the culture and ethos of your business that defines your core behaviours.

Don’t have too many values.

You probably won’t be able to include every value that is important to your organisation. As with most things in life, too much of a good thing just dilutes impact, meaning and relevance. Ten may be a nice round number, but we believe that’s way too many when it comes to values. You want your people to know your values and to live and breathe them. That’s tricky if you’ve got to remember and run through some slightly tacky acronym or mnemonic to get through the list. Three or four is a more appropriate number for most organisations.

Being aspirational is fine as long as you are realistic. Including values that, if you are brutally honest with yourself, are a long, long way off, or the stuff of far-fetched corporate dreams, will simply make a mockery of the process. Your people will know that this is not an actual (current) value and it will not drive their behaviours as you want it to.

Be unique, ‘be you’ and avoid the pointlessly generic.

There are an awful lot of well-intentioned but generic values out there in businessland. “Integrity”, “respect”, “inclusive”, and “accountability” are words that crop up a lot. And they’re all great things to value. But does that make them great values for your organisation?

If you can choose things that are unique or more bespoke to your business, that will make them more meaningful and relatable to your people. Employees are more likely to take an active pride in them and, therefore, live their working lives by them too.

For example, Ben & Jerry’s includes “We strive to create economic opportunities for those who have been denied them…” in theirs. Facebook has “Move fast” and “Be bold”. Google preach that “You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer”, whilst The Honest Company ask their people to “Pay it forward”, and Kellogg’s claim “Humility” is one of their values.

Translate them into behaviours.

It’s important to convert or distil those values into expected behaviours. These need to be clear, explicit and effectively communicated. If you want a culture where your people live by your values and hold themselves and others accountable to them, you need to make these clear, spell out their importance, upskill and develop if needed, and lead by example.

Employees are becoming ever-more particular about the organisations they choose to work for and are placing increasing importance on their vision and values. If organisations want to attract the very best talent, and avoid falling foul of the great resignation, they need to make sure their values are current, valid, and meaningful, and that they are known, understood and embraced by their people.


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