Values are go go…..

Are your organisational values more ‘no’ than ‘go’? Is a lack of understanding about what your values really mean keeping your organisation firmly on the starting block when they should be helping you win the race?

Most organisations have values these days and if they are well conceived they can be a powerful driver of employee engagement and experience, a catalyst for creating trust, building reputation and for business success. However, if they don’t have their roots deeply embedded in your organisation’s purpose and culture, employees and customers will quickly see through them and conclude that they are a sham.

Internal communicators have an important role in helping colleagues explore and understand what the organisational values mean to them and I’m currently working on a values project to enable that to happen.

I’ve been reflecting over the last couple of weeks about the approach I will be recommending, and there will definitely be some messages and tactics that I’ll be trying to avoid using because I don’t think they will resound well in the organisation I’m working with. It’s important to remember that what works within one organisational culture won’t necessarily translate well into another. Using phrases such as ‘living the values’ and ‘bringing the values to life’ will probably only serve to create resistance amongst our workforce and conjure up feelings that a rulebook or policy is being imposed onto colleagues. I think that communicating our values will need to be much more subtle than that.

If organisational values are closely aligned to and in step with the organisational culture and purpose then it should be easier to help colleagues understand what the values mean to them. With that in mind, here are a few of the thoughts I’ve been having about how to communicate about organisational values.

Start with why

I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek. If you haven’t already read some of his books or seen his videos do have a look. He writes and speaks about leadership and communication and as soon as I started work on my current values project his book ‘Start with Why’ came to mind.

The main premise of ‘Start with Why, is that most organisations describe and communicate about themselves in terms of what they do, and how they do it. However, starting with why – essentially your organisational purpose, cause, belief or reason for existing is a much more powerful way of inspiring people to take action. Simon articulates this as the golden circle, a bulls-eye of concentric rings with ‘why’ at the centre followed by ‘how’ and ‘what’. Communicating about your organisation from the inside out using this sequence will get you heard more easily because people care more about your ‘why’ than they do about your ‘how’ and ‘what’.

Organisational values should capture the essence of the organisational why. So I’m thinking that asking colleagues to consider why our organisation exists in the first place should be a good introduction to building their understanding of the values.

If your organisation doesn’t currently have any articulated values, then starting with ‘why’ could be your best bet for surfacing what they could be, and I think this also raises a really important point. Organisational values should be defined from the bottom up by the people who work in the organisation.

Values which are solely conceived by the leadership team during an executive offsite away-day are doomed to failure. This is because colleagues will simply feel that they have no ownership of them and that they have been imposed top down by the leadership team.

Leaders must walk the walk

Organisational values have to be for everyone in the organisation, including leaders and managers. This means that their actions and decision making must be in line with them. The values should be their fundamental guide for shaping decisions and how these are implemented and communicated in the organisation. This shouldn’t be difficult if the values are truly aligned to the organisational ‘why’ and culture, and leadership are committed to them.

However, beware. All organisations have within them what I refer to as the ‘Kremlin watchers’. Eagle eyed colleagues who watch the every move of leaders and managers. They are usually the ones who are first to call it out if they see inconsistencies in what they say and what they do. So, leaders and managers simply saying that they support the organisational values isn’t enough, they must walk the walk if they are to be credible advocates.

This is why I will be closely involving my leadership team in the communications for my current values project so that they can take ownership of them from the beginning.

Make the values visible and memorable

Where do your organisational values live? Are they buried somewhere deep within your intranet or do they lurk inside a dull organisational strategy document that no one ever reads?  

In a perfect world, if your values were intimately a part of your culture and everyone knew what they meant and behaved in ways that demonstrated them all of the time, then maybe this wouldn’t be a problem. However we don’t live in that sort of perfect world. The reality is that people come and go in organisations and not everyone behaves in line with the values all of the time. So some reminders and cues are required to keep everyone on track.

Rule of three – How many values should your organisation have? I’ve seen some who have anything up to twelve and I think that’s far too many. From a communications perspective I think that three values is the right number. Most people can easily remember three things and it’s also a well established writing principle that a trio of characters or concepts in storytelling creates a more compelling narrative.

Visuals – I’ve been into several organisations where their values are literally written on the walls, in one case in six foot high lettering. Whilst this is definitely a bold, in your face approach, things on workplace walls tend to end up becoming unseen wallpaper unless they are regularly refreshed. More subtle examples I’ve come across include having them as reminders on meeting agendas, on screensavers and embedded into induction and development programme videos.

Mind your language – I often say that words are weapons in the wrong hands. It’s easy to drop into using a form of language that is counter cultural and could torpedo your values. I once worked in an organisation where linguists analysed the language we used in our written communications to reveal our underlying organisational culture. The conclusions they came back with were spot on and for me the experience of working with them was a powerful reminder to mind your language when communicating about anything. I’ll be bearing this in mind when communicating about our values.  

Sharing experiences – The daily experience of colleagues working with the organisational values and the sharing of those experiences with other colleagues is probably the most compelling way of communicating the true meaning of them. I heard someone from an online retailer speak at an internal communications conference last year about exactly this.

One of the retailer’s values is ‘caring’ and there was a powerful example of this when a customer rang their call centre to buy a new microwave. As he was disabled, housebound and lived alone the device was his lifeline enabling him to heat up his meals on wheels and his existing one had suddenly broken down. A minor inconvenience for most of us, but an absolute disaster for him. He had no credit card and wasn’t able to complete the transaction, so the team working in the call centre spontaneously had a whip round to buy the microwave and get it delivered to him the same day.

The account of the emotional telephone conversation between the customer and employee had been widely shared in the organisation as a true example of caring. I have to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the conference when this story was recounted. Experience is all.

Values as vibes

Finally, as I’m currently tuned into anything about values, I spotted a blog from Rachel Miller at AllthingsIC this week about how Missguided communicate their organisational values as ‘vibes’. The interview with Glenn Grayson, Missguided’s Internal Communications and Engagement Partner is a great read.

What particularly impressed me was the academic research and insight which has shaped Glenn’s communication approach at Missguided. I was very drawn to the concept of communicating values as vibes and considered immediately ripping up my own communication plans and emulating this. However, as I mentioned earlier in this blog, what works for one organisational culture won’t necessarily translate well into another, so a degree of caution is required. In Glenn’s own words during our twitter chat:

‘Be true to your brand DNA. What works for one organisation can’t simply be copied in another.’  

I’d be interested to hear how other internal communicators are helping colleagues understand what their organisational values mean to them, so please do get in touch.


If you are interested in learning more about some of the concepts and ideas I’ve mentioned in this blog, here are some links:

Simon Sinek ‘Start with Why’ (YouTube video)

Rule of three (Wikipedia article)

Why Missguided launched cultural vibes as values (AllthingsIC guest blog)

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