The only way to bring organisational values to life

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The only way to bring organisational values to life

by | Jan 10, 2024

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.

From the standpoint of 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:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. We never gossip, triangulate or speak behind anyone’s back. It’s the direct conversation or bust. 

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:

  1. We speak and act from an intent to warmly include and befriend others. 
  2. 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. 

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:

  1. In any challenge or difficulty we first ask ourselves, ‘What’s my part in this?’, and we own it and grow from it. 
  2. 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. To give you an example of these guidelines in action, we once worked with an infrastructure engineering company that was building a very large civil project. We started by helping them to set their values. Although they set two core values, for this case study we’ll focus on their value of integrity. Here is what they came up with for this value:

Value: Integrity

Behavioural standards:

  • We follow through on commitments. This means that 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.
  • We say it as it is. This means 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 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.

So first they established the core value of integrity, next they looked at behavioural standards and stories. They chose two core behaviours: ‘We follow through on commitments’ and ‘We say it as it is’. The story behind those statements is an acknowledgement of what it means and what leaders need to do to ensure it happens. It gives context, while remaining simple and clear. 

Now they had clear behavioural standards to make their integrity value concrete and to hold each other accountable. We encourage teams to simplify the process even more by choosing just one values-related behaviour. Modern behavioural science demonstrates that the heavy lifting of growth is not done by a sheer volume of values and behaviours, but rather by the process of mastering of one important values-related behaviour. 

One team we worked with decided they really wanted to focus on the ‘we say it as it is’ behaviour attached to the value of integrity. They could have used as their behaviour statement, ‘We say it as it is’. However, they decided instead to use a subset of the behaviour descriptor to ensure it was even clearer and simpler: ‘We never speak behind people’s backs.’ To instil this behaviour, they then looked at the three Rs of role modelling, rituals and rewards, and accountability. 

First, they established a ritual around the behaviour commitment. They agreed to include a meeting agenda item every fortnight for team members to share one failure and one success around their collective commitment. They also discussed the consequences of people not following through on the commitment, as well as the rewards if they bravely did. On this front, they wrote down two things: ‘When people fall into this habit, we will call them out and push them to have a direct conversation,’ and ‘When team members speak up bravely, we will thank them and make it safe by being non-defensive and curious.’  

You can imagine how challenging it was for team members to admit failure openly when it occurred. But because this team had also done enough self-awareness work, they were able to admit errors, take accountability and adjust their behaviour. And they were supported both by a collective commitment not to engage in shame and blame when people admitted to a lack of integrity, and also by a leader who was role modelling well. With this container of team psychological safety, they quickly began to appreciate and understand that the ritualised commitment would keep them accountable, help them personally to grow, and keep reconfirming trust and transparency. 

In the simplicity of this ritual and the clarity of the singular commitment, the team’s trust grew to levels none of them had ever experienced professionally before. It wasn’t long before admitting a failure of integrity and bravely holding each other accountable became a team behavioural norm. In short, by bringing their values from the wall to the floor with clear behavioural commitments and accountability, they became a psychologically safe team committed to a values-aligned, growth mindset. 

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