Organisation Values – the benefits and the risks

Developing a set of organisation values can have a very positive impact on a working culture, but runs the risk of creating a lot of meaningless assessment activity.

At their best, values tell all employees what matters here, how they can expect to be treated, and how they should behave towards others.   At their worst, values become some ambiguous phrases that employees are supposed to ‘demonstrate’ they have complied with, in order to earn a particular performance rating.

For many years, a global financial services company had a value of ‘kill complexity’.  It sounds odd to have a value with the word ‘kill’ in it doesn’t it?  Yet this value was very successful, it told all employees that their organisation had grown too bureaucratic and everyone was to focus on streamlining or simplifying their work.    People who made great inroads on reducing complexity were recognised and rewarded.

Not all values are so clear.  I see many organisations have adopted values such as ‘courage’ or ‘courageousness’.   What does ‘courageous’ mean in the context of an organisation?  How do I prove it?  It could mean asking us all to take on a challenge that we find difficult.  That’s reasonable.  Being courageous could also mean asking us to speak out when we see things going wrong – in many organisations that behaviour would be distinctly career-limiting.   So – stop asking people to ‘prove’ they have been courageous, and instead coach them to think about what would be courageous for them when faced with challenge or opportunity.

Values matter because they tell us something about the organisation.  The behaviour of your leaders will tell employees what is valued and what is mere lip-service.   Implementing values that will help the organisation deliver its purpose is vital, because otherwise ‘unspoken values’ will arise, and they may not be what you want.

Once you have a set of values that your leaders support, it’s time to focus on using values as a coaching tool to improve performance, rather than a measuring tool to assess behaviour.