Warning: don’t play with our values!

What do your staff see when they read the Our Values statement on the walls of your organisation?  I wrote this posting for Discuss HR blog where it was published yesterday.

Recently I’ve been in the classroom, as a student.  I took my Hogan certification workshop last month with the aim of gaining accreditation to use the Hogan suite of tests and enjoyed the luxury of soaking up new information and insight.  Since then I’ve been diving deeper into the learning – exploring my results from the Hogan tests and matching them against my own experience, conducting my first feedback sessions, diving into the literature, even correlating Hogan’s research against what I know of David McClelland’s research.  It’s been a ball – albeit one with a serious purpose.

But let me get to my subject, which is not Hogan, though it was prompted by a remark by my trainer that Hogan holds the view that if you want to change organisational culture, you need to change your staff.  And I don’t mean gently invite them to change their values – to adjust the things they hold most dear in order to align their view of what’s important with the new list on the wall of their team area or executive office.  No, I’m talking about recruiting staff whose values correspond to those you want to promote around the organisation.

I was curious about this comment because I know how fashionable it has been during the course of my career for organisations to shape a values statement for a new era.  I also know how such statements can become the object of cynicism as the posters that adorn every wall gradually curl at the edges without any fundamental change.  We need to become more competitive and fleet of foot – let’s put that in a new values statement and see what changes.  If anything.

There’s also the tricky reality that people may do the same things for different reasons.  John in Risk and Control may adhere to the rules because he has strong values around acting with integrity, in line with clear principles.  His colleague Charles may also have a strong nose for risk management, which derives from his interest in making money and his understanding that, in a highly regulated industry, you have to be on the right side of the regulator to maintain your mandate to do business.  Each set of values has its advantages and disadvantages and the fact that a single department or team has diverse people with diverse values in the team also has its advantages and disadvantages as a result.

Of course, the ‘change your values, change your people idea’ can indeed play out in the long term.  Whenever I touch on the subject certain organisations spring to mind – Virgin, for example, Ben and Jerry’s or Pret a Manger.  Googling ‘Virgin values’ I came across the following statement on Virgin’s About Us page:  Virgin believes in making a difference. We stand for value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge. We strive to achieve this by empowering our employees to continually deliver an unbeatable customer experience.  I suspect that Virgin’s values statement is, though, the cart rather than the horse – that Richard Branson has, over the years, attracted people with similar values to work with him in a growing range of subsidiary organisations.  First came the embodiment of the values and then came the attempt to capture those values explicitly.

If all your staff share the same values, there can be an ease of working together, a strong brand that naturally emerges and the potential to attract a client base that shares your values – these, for me, are the most obvious advantages of shared values across an organisation.  There can also be risks.  The altruistically motivated organisation, for example, still needs somebody with enough commercial savvy to keep a strong eye on the books though he or she may feel unwelcome and uncomfortable amongst people with different values or have to push hard to engage colleagues in the financial realities of doing good for others.

Either way, a key question that the organisational values programme can overlook is this:  how malleable are people’s basic values and motivations?  To the extent that they are largely stable in most adults, investing in a new set of organisational values to meet the challenges of different times whilst keeping the same staff may well be costly and ineffective.  And if it is, how then can organisations drive those behaviours that are needed in a given era.

Most of all I wonder, what has been your experience in practice?

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