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Using Values to Change Organisational Culture

by | May 11, 2021

Organisational culture is the product of the behaviours displayed by leaders and team members. The only way to change organisational culture is to change behaviour. And the way to change behaviour is by consciously cultivating organisational values.

What are your organisational values? Can you list them immediately, or do you have to pause and think for a minute?

If you’re like most of the leaders I’ve worked with, it takes a while to remember your stated values. And if you can’t remember them off the top of your head, what is the likelihood that they’re actually influencing your behaviour in real time—especially when you’re under pressure and duress? What’s the likelihood that they’ve been deeply internalised?

There’s a good chance your company values aren’t truly impacting your organisational culture for good. But with some purposeful revisions, company values can become something that truly unites and motivates an organisation and incites positive organisational change.

Values are largely unconscious in organisations because 1) there are too many of them, 2) they don’t have clear behaviours attached to them, and 3) leaders don’t make them come alive and hold people accountable for them.

4 Ways to Use Values to Change Organisational Culture

Here are four steps for establishing and cultivating meaningful and effective organisational values, which then changes your organisational culture:

1. Less is More

It’s fairly standard for organisations to establish five to ten core values and then execute a communication campaign around them. After the communication campaign they are forgotten and neglected, business goes on as usual, the organisational culture remains the same. Then, of course, people get cynical about them.

The more values you list, the less likely people are to remember them. The less likely they are to remember them, the less likely they are to actually follow them in practice. Keep it simple. The fewer values you establish, the easier it is to remember and cultivate them in your organisational culture.

2. Establish Clear Behavioural Standards Around Your Values

The entire purpose of establishing and cultivating values is to influence behaviour, which determines your organisational culture. If your values don’t influence behaviour, they are pointless.

Each value you establish should be accompanied with clear, tangible, observable and measurable behavioural standards. What does living this value look like in practice? How do we know when we’ve violated the value? How do we know when to correct course, and even what to fix? We can hold people accountable for values only by knowing the specific behaviours attached to those values.

When we state a value, we assume that we have a common understanding of it. But it’s only in the description of the behaviour that we will know whether or not we mean the same thing by the value. If behaviours aren’t clearly specified, we can’t hold people accountable. We’ve got vagueness, and vagueness creates excuses on the part of those violating values, and shaming on the part of leaders trying to hold them accountable.

3. Create an Agreed Story Around the Values

There must be a shared story around each stated value and behavioural standard that helps leaders bring it to life and into context in your organisational culture. I’m not talking about a story that’s written down; rather, this type of story lives in the words and actions of the leadership and, by default, the organisational culture at large.

It can be helpful to see an example of these guidelines in action. Consider these values created by a client of mine with the support of my team.

Value: Integrity
Behavioural standards:
• We follow through on commitments.
• We say it as it is.

Value: Make a difference
Behavioural standards:
• We support each other to deliver our best.
• We always look to learn and improve.

Shared Stories:
Follow through on commitments: If we commit to a new behaviour, project deadline or anything else people inherently believe we have committed to, then we must take it extremely seriously and deliver—no excuses. If we know we won’t be able to deliver, we need to have credible reasons and be proactive in communicating those reasons before any commitments are experienced as being broken.
Say it as it is: We will not talk behind one another’s back in this organisation, nor will we go home and complain about others at work if we have not had the discussion directly first. As leaders, we must make it safe for people to be honest; in fact, we must celebrate tough honesty so it is seen as a great thing to do in this organisation. We cannot leave meetings saying one thing and thinking something different. This will erode trust and ruin our culture. We need to say it as it is, and to consistently translate that into clear, observable facts and clear requests. We need to be constructive, not destructive in the way we say things, but above all we need to say it as it is.
Support each other to deliver our best: We are fully committed to delivering the absolute best in everything we do. This means a true commitment to providing the tools, resources, coaching and empowerment to enable our people to shine. We recognise great achievements can’t be made alone. We take the time to collaborate and to share information openly and freely. We seek to listen to and include others in order to draw on the best from everyone. We go out of our way to ensure our work has a positive impact on the greater community and the environment. We continually support each other in making safety a top-of-mind priority.

Your organisational culture will have its own values, standards and stories, but following this pattern will give your values a sticky factor that will immediately make them more vibrant and memorable.

4. Consistently Talk About Your Values and Hold People Accountable to Them

Once you’ve established your values, talk about them regularly. Demonstrate to people that you’re serious about them. Recognise people who live them in their behaviour. Hold them up to show the organisation, “This is what it looks like to live our values.” Hold people accountable for them uncompromisingly. The minute you compromise the values or allow others to, your team or organisation will become cynical about them.

One of my clients does an amazing job of bringing their values to life, which is a primary reason why they won the Aon Hewitt Best of the Best Employer Award in 2011, and Best Employer every year since.

I interviewed their Learning and Development Manager to find out how this remarkable company makes its values a daily part of its organisational culture. She explained that first of all they check for values in their recruitment phase by asking specific questions. For example, they will ask potential recruits directly “What are your personal values?” They are checking to see how well they align with their organisational culture.

Once someone is hired, they are put through an induction process, the primary purpose of which is to instil the company values. They explain the desired organisational culture and why it is important. They do exercises around the values. They provide a results/values matrix that shows it’s not okay to get great results while violating their values, and vice versa. They take recruits through depth work on each of the values and explain exactly what they mean, how they are lived in daily work, and how they can be violated in terms of behaviour.

Ongoing values work includes periodic team camps, performance reviews (in which the values are included), reward systems based on living the values through peer nominations and the executive team revisiting the values regularly.

A general manager in this company also instituted the “Champions League” recognition system to make the value of teamwork more tangible. He wanted to ensure that the people in support functions did not go unnoticed and were recognised as much as the sales force for top-level results. He created peer-nominated awards for people in non-managerial roles who had demonstrated outstanding customer focus. Anyone in the company could submit a nomination along with a story to support their nomination, which the Executive Management Team reviewed to make sure that the candidates consistently lived the company’s values. Winners were determined over a nine-month period, and the awards were given out at a gala to celebrate the company’s 50-year anniversary in Australia where 250 people gave the recipients a standing ovation for exemplifying the shared values.

I also discovered how alive the values are in their organisational culture when I interviewed thirteen people after they had won the Best of the Best award. In each interview I casually slipped in the question, “What are your organisational values?”

With no warning or preparation time, twelve of the thirteen could name all four instantly, and one of them remembered three out of four. I then asked them how they applied the values. All thirteen explained clearly how the values applied to behavioural standards, performance reviews, informal recognition, hiring, decision-making and so on.

That is making the values conscious and alive in the organisational culture.

Leading from values is about so much more than boosting the bottom line. It’s about creating a culture of wholeness and wellness. It’s about bringing out the best in ourselves and others. It’s about being true to ourselves. If your organisational values aren’t shaping your organisational culture in a significant way, take some time to revisit them.

Remember, less is more, there should be clear behaviors attached to each one along with shared stories that give life and meaning to each value. Take the time to get this right; you and those you lead will be glad you did.

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