Many established organisations have alluring company values which they put into marketing materials, incorporate into sales pitches and stick up on office walls. Those values are meant to describe in big picture terms what the organisation cares about and how it operates.
But whether leaders and members genuinely live up to those values is another question. Perhaps this is why the idea of identifying and committing to company values can have a bit of a bad rap.
However, as a workplace strategist, I’ve also seen organisations – including numerous small businesses – where leaders and managers understood the purpose and potential of this concept really well, and successfully defined a set of values for their teams as well as the whole enterprise which made operations smoother and more successful.
Values can help answer difficult questions
The right values can help strengthen the brand, improve marketing and sales results, and attract team members and partners who are a good fit for the organisation – people with the right attitude, work ethic and passion. But more importantly, they can also help you and your team decide what to do in tricky situations at work, which may occur almost every day.
I’ve been in positions during my career when, in the absence of clearly defined values, I frequently faced dilemmas like these:
- Should I give clients the type of advice they want and expect from us, or what they really need for solving their problems?
- To what extent should I play along with clients’ ideas, and to what extent should I challenge them (for their own benefit, of course)?
- When is it a good time to innovate, and when is it a better option to stick to safe, tried-and-tested solutions?
- What should I do when we don’t have enough time or a big enough budget to complete a certain deliverable to the desired standard?
- Should I discuss unforeseen problems with clients if I believe that they can help, or should I try to get it solved within the team?
- What should I do when I can only complete a task in time at the cost of my own or my team’s health and wellbeing?
- When a decision needs to be made urgently, but a crucial piece of information for making the best decision is missing, should I wait or go ahead?
- How much of my personality can I show when I meet or communicate with different clients and partners?
Your team members might also often struggle with similar questions. They may go through internal turmoil, or experience friction amongst themselves, perhaps having the same sorts of arguments over and over again. They probably don’t even realise that they are involved in a values conflict – they may just think it’s difficult to communicate and collaborate with each other.
Either way, chances are that they don’t always end up with the best decisions in these situations, because without clearly defined values the answers to such questions are not obvious; a solution that works for one team or organisation could harm another.
How to define company values
Entire books are written about company values, but in essence, the way I see, they are answers to these simple questions:
- What is considered right and what is considered wrong in our organisation?
- What is acceptable and what is unacceptable?
- What is very important and what is not so important for us?
Please keep in mind that values shouldn’t be confused with beliefs, which are essentially professional views and opinions answering the question, ‘What is true and what is not true for us?’ This is a very important question of course, but requires an entirely different conversation.
It might already be established that your company is committed to pursue quality and innovation, and to operate ethically and responsibly, for example. But when it comes to defining your company values it’s important to dig deeper than that. Even the most skilled, creative and well-intentioned team member can’t necessarily tell what’s the right thing to do in a difficult situation without knowing the agreed priorities in sufficient depth.
As part of the process of identifying your company values, you’ll probably find it useful to discuss with your colleagues and teams the kinds of dilemmas they face at work, and the sometimes recurring disagreements that arise between members.
Values don’t need to be expressed in single words. Here are a few possible examples: putting clients first, creating meaningful change, enjoying work, looking after ourselves, being ahead of the competition, building friendships with clients, maintaining an immaculate professional image, embracing risk and failure, etc.
Make sure that you, your colleagues and your teams are on the same page about what exactly the chosen values mean and how they can guide decisions in daily practice.
Even though all the identified values are important, I strongly recommend that you put them in order of priority. This is not an easy task but a crucial one – after all, you and your people must agree on what’s non-negotiable and where it might be ok to make compromises when necessary. Later on, when someone encounters a challenging situation, all factors must still be considered and conflicting interests balanced, but with clear priorities your company values will always serve as a more accurate compass.
Expect to see better alignment on all fronts
Once you and your colleagues and teams have agreed on your shared values, and perhaps also identified separate subsets of values for different teams, you will find it easier to pinpoint the root of many conflicts and to work out how to address them. For example, values can often be realigned through conversations focusing on the team’s common ground and shared purpose. (In contrast, differences in beliefs are usually best addressed through education, i.e. sharing knowledge and experience on a subject.)
The fundamental values of your organisation will need to be agreed by all members. At the same time, you shouldn’t expect everyone to have identical individual values and priorities. In fact, in order to be able to innovate, solve complex problems and provide a comprehensive, holistic service, you want your colleagues and team members to represent a range of interests and perspectives.
Some people might be excited by numbers, while others are more interested in the artistic aspects of work. Some might be avid fans of the latest technology, while others are more drawn to the human perspective. Some might prefer to keep things safe while others constantly come up with game-changing innovative ideas.
By understanding your company’s values, members will likely have a better sense of their place in the team and the organisation, and a greater respect for the diverse range of qualities others bring into the mix. They will more likely see their differences as an opportunity to create something great and complete, rather than an obstacle to collaboration.
Ideas will still collide, but you will see more constructive debates and fewer fruitless arguments. Perhaps most importantly, your people will make better and more consistent decisions in challenging situations, which will elevate the quality of service provided by your company, along with the experience of your clients.