How to avoid an attack of the zombie values

I sometimes get asked to articulate organisational values statements for clients who want to explore the role they can play in positive company culture.

The first thing I say is “I can’t tell you what your values are; if they’re not authentically yours they’ll be meaningless”. And then I talk about how we go about extracting them from peoples’ deepest psyches so that we can craft them into a concise set of statements.

The second thing I say is “Are you clear about what you’re trying to achieve here? Because you know you can’t tell employees what to think, right?”

As a manager, just try telling an employee what personal values they must espouse. You might as well try to manage their feelings and dreams.

Go down this track and you may as well not bother developing organisational values because they’ll simply be ignored by everybody. I call these zombie values.

(Incidentally, I’m talking about internal people – employees – ignoring them. I’d argue organisational values are ALWAYS ignored by everybody externally, no matter how genuine they are, so if you’re doing a values exercise for external gloss purposes, you’re also wasting your time).

The trouble with living values is they’re deeply personal, deeply individual and deeply human. They’re part of our psychological make-up.

So how can an inanimate entity, a business, have values?

It can’t!

All an organisation can do is state a set of values its people collectively admire and aspire to – the “approved” values that serve the organisation’s desired culture.

So where’s the value to be had from developing a set of values for your business? Glad you asked.

OK you can’t tell people how they should feel, but as an employer you can certainly influence the way they behave.

But – as with any request – they’re much more likely to comply with your wishes if they understand WHY they should behave that way, and HOW it will benefit them.

And so values articulation should have three parts: what the value is, the kind of behaviours it entails and the personal and/or collective benefit of behaving that way – the ‘what’s in it for me’.

Because we’re trying to influence every person every day, this articulation must be expressed in simple language that everybody can personally embrace and relate to.

PLEASE no business-speak. No jargon. Just simple, relatable, everyday, human language.

I have found in client businesses (as well as our own) that people relate better over time to values and associated behaviours that are expressed this way. I like to develop a very concise version (you know, the one you want to stick on the wall in the kitchen or staff room!) and separately make available a fleshed out explanation of each.

Because if they don’t understand and relate to the values, don’t know what’s expected of them in relation to the values and don’t understand why the values are – forgive me – of value, then they won’t stick and won’t contribute a thing to your org culture.

Now. Will the business behave according to its stated values? Don’t get me started ….

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