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Blog - Values Based Culture

​As far back as 2011 The Economist Magazine published an article declaring that Values Based Culture was the new hot topic for organisations, however most L&D professionals would say that we have been developing and promoting this idea for a lot longer.  Regardless of this and in spite of hundreds of articles and books being published over the years on this subject, I continue to discover through working with my own clients that more and more senior leaders are still trying to get to grips with understanding what is actually meant by a values-based culture. ​

Just a few months ago one of my clients in the housing sector, asked me to facilitate an all staff event for 70 people to focus on developing their ‘Culture.’  To take this forward, I began working with the senior management team to explore and identify what they believed to be important for the culture in their organisation.  During our discussions they raised a number of questions about:

What is meant by organisational culture?

What is a value?

What is a values-based culture?

Why is a values-based culture important for our organisation?

It struck me that if this experienced senior management team was trying to figure out the answers to these questions, then other leadership teams may well be pondering the very same challenge. 

So, I’ve written this blog specifically to share my thoughts about each of these questions along with my personal views about why building a values-based culture should be on every senior leadership team’s agenda. 

What do we mean by organisational culture?

The first point I want to make, which is quite possibly the most important one on this entire subject, is quite simply this – culture is acknowledged more and more as one of the most significant and sustainable points of difference for any organisation in today’s market place.  Think about it, anyone can copy your organisation’s vision and/or strategy; this is probably published on your website or in your annual business report and therefore easily accessible for anyone who is interested.  But, no one can copy your culture.  Zappos, the on-line shoe and clothing company founded by Tony Hsieh, has demonstrated that an intentional focus on building a company culture that is right for them, has also helped to create a unique brand identity, clearly distinguishing it from its competitors, while contributing significantly to building customer loyalty.

So, what is organisational culture?  A widely used definition explains culture as ‘the way we do things around here’, which in part is an accurate summary.

Personally, I believe it is so much more.  The popular iceberg example is a graphic I use to illustrate the component parts that make up an organisation’s culture.  It clearly illustrates how the ‘way we do things around here’ is only the visible aspect – the tip of the iceberg.  A closer look reveals the non-visible aspects, the ‘why we do things the way we do them round here’, these are the real driving forces behind our behaviours.Your organisation’s culture is the sum of everyone’s values, attitudes and beliefs, which shape how people behave on a day to day basis.  The collective sum of rituals and customs, written and unwritten rules developed over time create the norms that establish your culture from within.

Your organisation’s culture can therefore, reveal itself in many different ways, for example:

The way the organisation treats its people, customers and the wider community

The extent to which autonomy is allowed in decision-making, developing new ideas, being creative and innovative

How power and information flow through its hierarchy

How committed employees are towards achieving collective objectives

This is to name just a few, and already it is easy to see how an organisations culture can have a direct impact on key areas like; productivity, performance, customer service, quality, safety, well-being, motivation and engagement. 

What is a Value?

Most of us probably know the answer to this at an intuitive level and that in itself often makes it difficult for us to put it into words, even more so when we refer to values within the context of organisational culture.

Here’s one description that sums it up for me.....values are our guiding principles that we use to judge what is important to us.  Our values therefore, have a major influence on our attitude, which is commonly regarded by many to be the main driver that underpins our behaviour.

Within the organisational context, well defined values express what kind of organisation you want to be and why.  They act as the organisation’s guiding principles for how you do business on a day to day basis, influencing everything from your decision making processes through to how you form and manage your professional relationships with colleagues and customers.

In my personal experience, when it is practical to do this, using a consultative approach to invite all employees to contribute to defining and shaping the organisation’s values works best.  And, here’s a word of advice for when you start to define the core organisational values - be sure to describe real values - don’t confuse values with results!  Results should be captured in your strategy and directly inform the specific goals and objectives the business is aiming to achieve.  For example, financial success is a result rather than a value.  However, financial success may be realised with the support of a number of values, such as excellence, continuous improvement, innovation etc.

Values describe HOW you will accomplish your strategy.  PZ Cussons, the multinational consumer goods manufacturer has created a strong and memorable set of values that have helped to drive improved business performance and translated this into a mnemonic – CAN DO – based on the values of; Courage, Accountability, Networking, Drive and Oneness. 

A value is something you can create behaviours around – values without behaviours are not actionable.  It is worth 

remembering, not all employees will have a common understanding of the values.  Explaining the values and behaviours using practical and tangible descriptions will help everyone to understand how to integrate them when they carry out their daily performance.

What is a Values-Based Culture?

There are many components to creating a values-based culture, making it much more than just putting a list of values on the wall and expecting people to live by them. 

It is not at all surprising that our thought leaders describe one of the key success factors of a values-based culture is having a senior leadership team that leads by example and holds itself responsible for driving the values.  Leaders and managers are in the best position to reinforce and support the expected behaviours.  You cannot expect your employees to live a value that is clearly not demonstrated by leaders and managers. 

Leaders who demonstrate the organisation’s values through their behaviour become strong role models for the entire organisation to understand how to ‘live the values.’

So how does an organisation create a shared vision and understanding of its values-based culture?

Here are a few steps to consider if you are embarking on this journey.......

  1. Empower managers to act as cultural architects for their teams.  Involving them in defining and shaping the values through consultation with their teams will help to inspire ownership and buy-in across the organisation and provide a forum for tackling any cynicism or scepticism among employees.
  2. Define the values in a way that makes them simple to understand by everyone in the organisation
  3. Translate the values into actionable behaviours and work hard to ensure that everyone understands link between the values and the expected behaviours. 
  4. Focus on a critical few behaviours that will have the most impact when used more often with more people
  5. Ensure the values and behaviours are aligned with your overall business strategy
  6. Embed the values and behaviours into your systems and processes – hire, recognise, reward, promote and even fire your people based on the values and behaviours
  7. Equip managers at every level with the right tools to engage their teams and encourage values and behaviours to be on everyone’s agenda
  8. Encourage managers to have regular discussion with their teams to keep culture on everyone’s agenda
  9. Define clear benchmarks at the beginning of your culture development programme and make sure you measure how far along the journey you are travelling

Why should a values-based culture be on your senior leadership team’s agenda?

It is only when everyone is working together that you can eventually create a culture that supports high performance.  A well developed and defined culture of shared core values and behaviours contribute to the strategic direction of the organisation and can be highly motivating for employees.

Gallup has shown in a recent survey that a healthy organisational culture of engaged employees, results in lower; turnover, absenteeism, safety incidents; and higher customer satisfaction, quality, productivity, sales and profitability.

And, according to Gallup – ‘A highly engaged workforce means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow’ – that’s why values-based culture should be on every senior leadership teams agenda.

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