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OmiliaHirst’s Dr Domna Lazidou reveals five key tests that will help you assess how ‘fit for purpose’ your values really are.

So you have worked really hard to get here: you have spent time with the leaders ensuring their input and buy in, sought insight from employees and experts, listened to the experience of your peers and carefully wordsmithed each value statement, aiming to produce the clearest, simplest and most authentic values your company has had so far. You are finally happy that you have cracked it. Your value statements are ready to launch.  But how do you know they are going to have a real impact? How do you know that they are any good at all?

1.       Do they resonate with employees across the organisation?

You may have already done employee research to identify the general principles employees find appealing, but it is also  important to know how employees respond to the values statement you have finally articulated. It is not enough to ask if people like the general concepts described. You must see how they engage with the precise messages themselves and what sort of narratives this engagement generates. Positive engagement should indicate the value described is accepted and desirable and aligned to organisational practice. Partial engagement will indicate where adjustments have to be made (for example where the value described is seen as a positive thing, but the organisational culture does not currently support it). In such cases, it is essential to ensure that the language clearly couches the value as aspirational and the communication focuses on how the gap between reality and aspiration will be bridged. Failing to do this will result in dissonance and rejection.

2.       Do they create shared meaning?

Even where a values statement generates positive engagement, it is important that this does not derive from personal connotations only. This happens when employees identify  the values as desirable for them as individuals, but fail to see the relevance of the value to them as members of the organisation. A parent who sees the value of a statement as relating to the way they behave towards their family, but does not identify the relevance to their role as a manager, for example, would see nothing amiss in disregarding the behaviour described in her professional life. Unique/personal  interpretations of  value statements are in many ways inevitable – it is naïve to assume that a complete alignment between personal and organisational values is ever achievable. However, unless a value statement generates at least one meaning that is shared among most employees (i.e. produces some common understanding about organisational behaviours) it is not fit for purpose.

3.       Can you identify and describe the behaviours that illustrate them in the organisation? (including among leaders)

This is an easy one and it should also guide the design of the values. Unless you and employees can easily produce examples of the behaviours the values statements describe – not generic but specific ones - then it is likely that you need to rethink them. In some cases, this may mean adjusting the language or making your values more descriptive. If, however, the examples that come forward describe precisely the opposite of what you are expecting to see, you have identified a complete clash between the espoused and real and you need to go back to the drawing board or risk increasing cynicism and creating disengagement.  

4.       Do they pass the ‘so what’ test?

Even when the other three tests are successful, it does not mean that your values are the right values for your organisation, at this moment in time, in your particular context. Values statements frequently sound and look generic because many companies end up talking about the same fundamental business things – innovation, customers, people, trust….Some experts suggest that you should navigate clear from such ‘obvious’ choices and be totally different. But this is not necessary. It is OK to have a value about customer service, even though hundreds of thousands of other organisations also do the same, as long as it passes the ‘so what test’. In other words, for each value statement, you must know and you must show how this value is important to your organisation, its purpose, strategic future and its people. If this does not come across in the employee narratives when you test them, you must think again.

5.       Can you localise them without losing their core essence?

It has become quite popular for organisations to talk about and try to impose a ‘one company’ culture. In many ways all companies have their own unique culture and however complex or diverse an organisation is, employees in different parts of it will still share some common perspectives, practices and meanings. However, a completely unified, homogenous culture is neither achievable nor desirable – organisations need a certain level of diversity both to encourage creativity and innovation and to be able to connect and respond to different customer segments in different parts of the world. An assumption that one statement of values in the same style of English will make sense and create the same response in different employee groups is at best naïve. When crafting your values you must consider the core meaning they reflect and you must test that this meaning still remains relatively constant while allowing for local priorities to be reflected.  Compare, for example, the following two statements, one American, one Australian from a famous fast-food company:

We give back to our communities. We take seriously the responsibilities that come with being a leader. We help our customers build better communities, support Ronald McDonald House Charities, and leverage our size, scope and resources to help make the world a better place.

We give back to our communities
Translation:We look after the locals.
We take seriously the responsibilities that come with being a leader. We help our customers build better communities, support RMHC®, and leverage our size, scope and resources to help make the world a better place. We are committed to sustainable business practices and are determined to conduct our operations in a manner that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
Learn how to use these tests and much more in the upcoming IoIC  ‘Make your values count’ masterclass to be held in London on Thursday 3 November . It’s aimed at senior communicators, heads of comms or equivalent. Click here for booking details.
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