Have you ever worked in an organisation that boasts a great sounding set of values — ‘integrity’, ‘inclusion’, ‘teamwork’, ‘curiosity’, ‘transparency’, ‘respect’. . . — yet fails to make them meaningful through concrete action, leadership role modelling, rituals, rewards and accountability? It’s not enough simply to state values and ideals. Organisational values must be backed by committed actions and behaviours, with real rewards and accountability. This is often referred to as bringing the values from the wall to the floor. In other words, the values on the office wall or company website are actually lived and taken seriously in the organisation.
In organisational culture, values are statements of our highest cultural aspirations. They express the organisation we want to belong to. However, for organisational values to be truly meaningful, they must be translated into observable behavioural commitments.
For example, suppose your organisation lists ‘integrity’ as a core value. What does that mean in terms of actual behaviour? How do people behave when they are living with integrity? What is their behaviour when they are out of integrity? Unless a value is defined in terms of behaviour, it will remain an abstract concept and therefore have very little influence on the organisation.
To give you an example, here are my organisational values expressed in behaviour commitments:
Growth value #1: Honesty
Honesty is the most admired quality in leaders globally and the single most important element of leadership growth, and leadership growth is what we do. To support our commitment to honesty, we keep these two key practices in mind:
We tell our clients the truth, no matter how risky or challenging. We are here to serve our clients, not to protect our insecurities or income.
We never gossip, triangulate or speak behind anyone’s back. It’s the direct conversation or bust.
Growth value #2: Kindness
We know that deeper development work requires psychological safety, and without kindness, psychological safety is impossible. We also know that kindness without honesty can create a lack of accountability and codependence, while honesty without kindness can be hurtful and even destructive. To support our commitment to kindness, we keep these two key practices in mind:
We speak and act from an intent to warmly include and befriend others.
We remember that no one needs fixing, they only need to remember they are already whole and worthy of the deepest respect. See them and treat them that way.
Growth value #3: Accountability
Accountability is central to all vertical growth. Without accountability we slide into blaming, denying and numbing; we begin to avoid what most needs to be addressed while becoming dishonest with ourselves and others. To support our commitment to accountability, we keep these two key practices in mind:
In any challenge or difficulty we first ask ourselves, ‘What’s my part in this?’, and we own it and grow from it.
We hold each other to account for our agreed values and our commitments. We know accountability keeps us collectively on track with our values and aspirations.
Of course, we are not prescriptive in terms of the exact way our clients express their values. The key is that they are not abstract but are translated into relevant behaviours. Though we generally assume a common understanding of values, in reality people almost always have a different understanding of what is meant by values such as ‘integrity’, ‘respect’ or ‘service’.
The only way to ensure that everyone within an organisation knows what is meant by a stated value is to describe the behaviour it entails. If behaviours aren’t clearly defined, we can’t hold people accountable to them, nor can we reward or appreciate them when they bravely follow the values under pressure. We end up with a vague ‘you’re great to work with’ kind of conversation; or, even worse, when values are not being followed we really struggle to have constructive, honest conversations about misaligned behaviours. Problems go unaddressed. This issue is rampant in teams and organisations.
One of our favourite lines of questioning for leaders is, ‘What are the most important values-based behaviours in your team? Are they commonly agreed upon, and do you have rituals in place for appreciation and accountability around those behaviours?’. Most leaders we ask don’t have these rituals in place. Our obvious next question is, ‘So how do you deliberately cultivate a high-trust, values-aligned culture?’
To bring team or organisational values to life, it’s critical to have a shared meaning and clarity around each stated value and its related behavioural standards.