Company values have been used within organisations for a long time now. These days, I find it rare to come across a company that doesn’t refer to a set of values as part of its ideal culture and strategy.
Unfortunately, just having a set of company values doesn’t really help by itself. For them to take hold and make an impact, they need to be useful.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at what company values are, why they can be useful and of course, some ways that you might make them have a greater impact for your team and organisation.
What Are Company Values?
Let’s start at the beginning – what are these things?
In a literal sense, they are just words. Words like honesty, integrity, compassion, innovation for example.
I am a big fan of identifying and making sense of our own personal values. Not just for leadership, but for people in general, no matter what they do.
Company values are a set of words that aim to embody the culture and way of operating within an organisation. Leaders choose company values to try to set the tone for how people and the business will operate.
They were formally introduced as a concept in the 90s (although companies were using them before this) in the book “Built to Last”, by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.
From there, it became much more common for organisations to adopt a set of values to help shape their work.
Why Company Values Can Be Useful
Values can form a useful part of organisational culture for a few reasons:
- They can act as a decision-making tool. We can ask questions like “Is this strategy, action, product or acquisition aligned with our values? If not, should we do something else?”
- They can shape behaviours. Values can help people to understand what workplace behaviour is acceptable (and appreciated) and what isn’t.
- Values can attract the right crowd. Values can be used to attract employees who share the same ideals, and they can also attract our ideal customers, if they resonate with what the business stands for.
As an example, the large technology manufacturer Dell uses the values Customers (meaning customer focus), Winning Together, Innovation, Results and Integrity.
The athletic apparel company Under Armour uses Love Athletes, Celebrate the Wins, Stand for Equality, Act Sustainably and Fight on Together.
As you can see, some of these are statements of intent rather than just single value words. Regardless, these are used to communicate to employees and customers what the company stands for.
I like the use of company values as a way of attempting to help a large number of employees head in the same direction.
After all, it’s pretty hard getting hundreds or thousands of people working towards the same goal. Company values can help.
What Are the Problems With Company Values ?
In my view, there are a few challenges when it comes to organisational values.
Firstly, personal values are likely to be very different than company values. In other words, it’s unlikely that my personal values will match those of any company that I work for.
Sure, there will hopefully be some overlap, but it won’t be perfect.
Second, I notice a degree of cynicism when it comes to company values in the workplace. People stop really caring about them.
Common Reasons For Pointless Values
There are a few common reasons that I believe are behind the cynicism towards corporate values.
Firstly, values become useless when people don’t know what they are. Many leaders never talk about them or refer to them, which often renders them as nothing more than a poster on the wall that nobody looks at.
Second, many organisations don’t use their values for anything. What’s the point of having a set of company values if they never really have an impact on the way your team or business operates?
And lastly, I think the biggest reason for cynicism comes down to situations when they see leaders or employees acting contrary to the company values, without being held to account.
For example, the company with the value of “integrity” where the senior executive are engaged in intense politics and backstabbing. Or the organisation with the value of “environment” that uses a heap of hard-to-recycle packaging when it sends its products.
When people see examples of the values being ignored, they’ll start to ignore them too.
Learn More: Why Even Good Leaders Can Show a Lack of Integrity.
How to Make Company Values Matter More
It’s common to see people roll their eyes when they hear about company values. We don’t want that happening in our teams or organisations.
I believe they can add value when used effectively, so let’s look at some ideas to try to use them more, and better.
1. Talk About Them
To start with, let’s simply start talking about them more.
Talk about them in team meetings and 1 on 1s. Look for examples of where you saw the values in action, and get team members to talk about their own examples.
You are a role model (whether you like it or not), so when you talk about them, you’re setting the tone. But that might not be enough – let’s look at some other ideas too.
2. Make Your Company Values More Prominent
We’ve all seen the poster on the wall in the lunch room which everyone ignores.
What about including them in your own presentations, team documents or having them posted up in your own workspace, rather than just the communal areas?
Or, adding a custom background to your Teams or Zoom chats which incorporates the values?
You don’t need HR to do it for you – you could be proactive and bring more of your company values into your particular work area.
3. Use Company Values When Hiring
People generally like working in organisations where they feel they belong. If an individual’s personal values closely align with the company’s, this can be one way to try to foster this belonging.
When hiring, talk about the values with the candidate. Before the interview, let them know you’ll ask them questions about how their values align with the organisation’s.
Then, tell them what you do with the company values in your team to help shape behaviours and build a sense of camaraderie and belonging.
The point here is that we don’t want the values to be just something we use in interview questions – we want their impact to be long-lasting and part of the workplace culture.
4. Do a Values-Mapping Exercise
An individual’s values will never match the company’s perfectly, and that’s fine.
But sometimes I find it useful to encourage a little analysis of how closely the values do align.
To do this exercise, I suggest using some of the free personal values lists (referenced earlier in this post) or a tool like the “Live Your Values Deck”.
Start by having team members individually identify their top 5 values from the lists. Encourage them to look for examples of where these values have shown up in their past experiences to shape who they are today.
Then, have everyone map their own values against the company values.
Where do they match or reinforce each other? What are the examples of where they differ?
Where they differ, what is the potential impact of this? How might the person still be able to act in alignment with their personal values more often, even though there is a difference?
Are there situations where this difference can be a strength for the team?
5. Use Company Values in Decision-Making and Performance Conversations
Values are ignored when they aren’t used. So use them.
When you are making a team decision, see if you can use the company values as a helpful tool.
We could go this way or that way. Which way aligns more closely with the company values? If we went the other way, what could be the potential impact?
They might not give you the perfect answer, but they can be an additional source of assistance in the decision-making process.
It can also be helpful to use company values in performance or behaviour conversations with your team members. If you’re seeing bad behaviour, look for examples of how that behaviour goes against the values.
If you’re seeing good behaviour, see if there are positive links to the company values in there. Have alignment to the values as a key criteria in performance reviews. Ask people to find examples of where they have aligned with the values.
Over time, people will learn that the values aren’t just lip-service. They’re used for something.
6. Create Your Own Set of Values, Purpose and Related Behaviours
If you find that your company values are a little high-level or not able to be referenced meaningfully in your team, consider creating your own tools to use instead.
This might be your team’s own set of values that are more specific to the members within it. Or you may create a team purpose, which helps to link the work of your team with the organisation as a whole.
You can also tie this to a set of team behaviours that you want to see. These can be derived from the company values, but may be more specific and practical for you to apply in your team.
These behaviours become the way your team operates, and you can then use them as a reference point for examples of good and bad behaviours in your team.
If You Believe Company Values Can Be Useful, Then Start to Use Them
I believe company values can be a useful asset, if we choose to use them.
But over time, I have noticed that people have become more and more cynical about their use within a company.
That’s because leaders pay lip service to them, or never refer to them at all.
If you believe they can make a difference in your team, start using them more and they’ll become useful.
You never know, you might even cultivate a team environment where people feel like they belong.
What do you think about company values? Let me and all the other thoughtful leaders know in the comments!