Values Are Free But Not Cheap

What do you feel when you hear someone talking about the importance of your company values? Do you delight in being part of a business that lives out its standards and follows its values? Or, do you hold back your irritation at such pointless corporate fluff?

National news media stories of bad behaviour by businesses and publicly funded bodies fuel a cynicism of the need for values. Too often we see, hear and experience the disconnect between the values written in the company literature and the everyday actions of the people in an organisation.

So, why then do my colleagues and I at Know+Do promote the setting of company values? For us, they are the differentiator of a business – used appropriately they can help play a key part in attracting the right talent to join you and the best customers to purchase from you. Values set the standards of interaction and decision making in a business; they allow you to be unique from your competitors.

Times are changing too, young adults are becoming more attuned to noticing and responding to values in action. Studies are showing [for example] that the emerging millennial generation is more concerned about the ethics, values and impact of business than ever before. If you employ anyone under 30 or sell to them this is an issue your business cannot afford to ignore.

One point of confusion we’ve noticed in many businesses is the definition of values. There is a wide range of understanding about what values mean for a business. This can breed confusion, inconsistent application and misinterpretation. We explain values as the ‘behaviours and attitudes’ you want to see demonstrated in your company. Or put another way, values are the “way you want people in the company to act, even when no-one is looking”.

Using the word values itself is not essential, it is the intent behind it that matters. Some businesses prefer terms like behaviours, principles or guiding lights but whatever is chosen a common understanding is needed. To do this we recommend a business leader ensures 4 things happen:

  1. Explain them
  2. Use them
  3. Share them
  4. Know their cost

Explain them. It is amazing how often values are just left as one-word phrases and are not communicated to colleagues appropriately. Terms are used loosely like ‘professional’ and everyone in a business is supposed to know what that means. To one person being professional could be to act positively with their colleagues and customers, to smile or be ever ready to be helpful. To another it could be to be efficient, not waste time talking to others, to keep focused on tasks and remain distant. Explaining the core values takes time but the expectations can be shared and understood.

Use them. Values are for everyone in a business, not just those who speak to your customers! They need to be modelled by the leaders in the words they use, the way they act and how they arrive at decisions. If not, they will be less effective. For instance, how do your values influence the assessment of new staff? How do values enhance the personal development of your workforce? When are the values used to measure the success of your performance? If they cannot do any of these things they are probably not the right set of values!

Share them. The act of displaying the values and their message is a key part of the communication process. They need to come out of the business plan paper and be seen in procedures. They can be used in numerous ways, e.g. in the choice of recruitment questions or the compilation of job descriptions; being displayed on the wall so they can be seen by all; used as an agenda structure to check they are being adopted; and, posted proudly online providing themes for social media or being part of the main web page.

Know their cost. Values can seem like quite a low-cost action for a business, once they are created their use is everyday. Though this is true, dopting them into behaviours and attitudes is free but they are not cheap. One way you will know if you have a strong values set is to measure their ‘cost’ to your company. By that I mean, your values should influence decisions in ways that might not always be the cheapest or easiest way for a business act. For instance, one of our company values is ‘Sharing’ so this means we give some of our intellectual property away freely; and we’ve been told we do that too much at times! However, it is a cost we are willing to carry as it expresses who we are and if we say it is a value it should drive behaviour. If one of your values is, for example, ‘Helpfulness’ this might mean staff give up some time to do something extra for a client. If a value is ‘Sustainability’ you might buy a more ethically sourced product which is more expensive than alternatives. You decide the values, you decide how much they influence behaviour and attitudes.

Like many aspects of leadership and management setting values is not complex but it does require consistent action. For a process to embed in the business it needs repeated application by managers as your business is not static; your people are constantly changing in their needs (and maybe who they are through staff turnover). Your leadership needs to check the relevance of the values regularly. In this way, they will be in daily use and not just boring PowerPoint slide at the AGM!

This may seem like much to do but helpfully one of our values is ‘Simplicity’ and we have several tools and frameworks we can share if you need inspiration to set and sustain your business values. Contact us to ask for some ways to create and embed your values as your company grows.