You’ve Finally Nailed Down Your Company Values. What Happens Next?

Drafting a set of values that you want to guide your company is the easy part. So, how do you get your employees to actually practice those values in their day-to-day?
Headshot of author CS Chan
CS Chan
Expert Columnist
October 2, 2021
Updated: October 5, 2021
Headshot of author CS Chan
CS Chan
Expert Columnist
October 2, 2021
Updated: October 5, 2021

Step into 10 modern offices, and you’ll find value statements plastered on the walls of at least seven of them. These statements signal to outsiders that the company behaves in certain ways — or at least they try to create that impression. But if you pull a random employee aside and ask them what the value statement on the wall means to them, you’ll likely get an apathetic shrug in response.

Here are a few things we know about core values at most companies:

  • Companies love spending time (and money) defining them.

  • Companies love promoting them.

  • They often don’t mean much to employees.

Alright. If core values don’t seem to mean much to employees, what’s the point of defining and promoting them in the first place? After all, our ancestors lived through their work lives without seeing core values posted everywhere in the office, and they seem to have come out just fine.

3 Steps To Turn Values Into Actions

  1. Identify tangible actions that exemplify core values.
  2. Openly recognize company values in action.
  3. Measure values during appraisals.

Need Help With Core Values? Check This Out.70 Examples of Impactful Company Core Values

 

Values Should Motivate Staff

Here’s where readers of Built In should all agree: The modern workplace is not the same as its equivalent of generations past. Relative to the workplace of yesteryear, a typical job today requires much more intellectual output than it does routine procedures. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that, although rewards and punishments worked well in boosting productivity for routine-based work, for intellectual jobs, the key drivers for performance are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Empirical evidence suggests that businesses that don’t prioritize these three drivers tend to underperform against their peers.

Given this situation, these three drivers often lead companies to come up with a set of core values. Just as most businesses chase profits through performance, most people want to work with a sense of purpose. A company whose values don’t align with its employees’ will find that motivating the staff to perform well is a challenge.

Let’s say a company, with the good intention of boosting performance from its staff, has come up with its value statements. Here’s what they look like:

  • Communication: We have an obligation to communicate openly.

  • Respect: We treat others as we would like to be treated.

  • Integrity: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely.

  • Excellence: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.

OK, so maybe these points sound a bit clichéd, but what value statements aren’t? At least these are statements that execs and employees can all stand behind, right?

 

Values Without Action Are Houses Built on Sand

As it turns out, those were the core values of Enron, the energy behemoth that spectacularly collapsed in 2001 due to accounting fraud knowingly perpetrated by its executives and senior employees. Employee behavior at Enron was not driven by the value statements, but instead by a culture of greed that encouraged unethical behavior that permeated throughout the entire organization. Ironically, just one year before the fraud was uncovered, Enron even produced a 64-page book titled Enron Code of Ethics and made all employees sign a certificate of compliance after reading it.

Here’s the thing: People don’t learn behavior from reading a poster or a book.  If they did, that code of ethics could have prevented Enron executives from breaking the law. Instead, people learn how to act in a given situation from observing how others behave. Think about the last time you drove on a highway. Did you follow the posted speed limit strictly, or did you “go with the flow” by driving five or 10 above just like everyone else?

So, values are clearly important for the performance of a modern-day company. But we can also see that values by themselves mean nothing if a company cannot make them stick. But if sticky posters on the wall don't lead to sticky values in employees’ minds, what will?

 

Step 1: Identify Tangible Actions That Exemplify Core Values

When a set of corporate values has not yet become common language among staff, employees may struggle to grasp what types of behavior would be in line with the values. Managers may find elaborating on the expectations equally challenging. This is where everyone can benefit from solid examples.

A few years ago, one of my former employers unveiled a brand-new set of value statements. Giant, colorful graphics saying things like “Stay Curious, Think Big” and “Trust Explicitly, Work Transparently” were plastered on the walls. They certainly looked inspirational, but what exactly should staff do about them?

Shortly after the launch of the new value statements, I invited team managers at the Hong Kong office, where I was based, to a series of voluntary working breakfasts, covering one value statement at a time. Apart from filling our stomachs with pastries and coffee, I had set out a single goal: Getting managers to share what they saw as tangible, imitable behavior that served as either good or bad examples of a particular value. Some of the suggestions could be observed in team members, while others were clearly aspirational. Some actions were limited to certain job roles, but others were more universal.

These candid discussions expanded the managers’ horizons for what those new values could look like in action. The lists of behavior we had gathered were by no means exhaustive. Nonetheless, having them written down and shared, managers now had a “cheat sheet” that showed how aspirational statements translated into actual behavior that they could readily relay to their teams. 

As a result, the staff had a much better grasp of what managers expected from them in terms of specific actions that we appreciated versus those that should be avoided. The meeting format and the lists were subsequently passed to other offices around the world, where managers did their own versions to localize for each office. Soon enough, everyone was more or less on the same page.

 

Step 2: Openly Recognize Company Values in Action

Let’s be honest with ourselves though: Translating values into lists of behavior was merely an act of signposting. To make sure the promotion of value-based behavior is not just a one-off, staff need to constantly see good behavior taking place around them and follow the example. One thing is for sure: Managers can’t give feedback about behaving in line with values all the time.

The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, this feels way too much like parenting or micromanagement, which staff neither need nor want. Secondly, if the feedback always comes from the same person, the message loses impact. Conversely, by encouraging everyone to recognize one another often, and by publicizing those recognitions, a company can greatly amplify the message of its values.

After my former employer launched the new value statements, the company also installed a recognition plug-in on its intranet site. The plug-in allowed staff to award a limited number of “value badges” to their colleagues each and every week, for deeds aligned with the new set of values. And before you think of Office Space and begin to cringe involuntarily: no, these weren’t self-picked “15 pieces of flair;” you could not assign badges to yourself. There also weren’t any repercussions or implications for not giving or receiving badges. 

These virtual badges, along with the recognition messages, appeared on electronic information screens installed across all offices. After having collected a certain number of badges, employees could redeem tokens of appreciation of their choice, e.g., company donations to a charitable cause, a pizza party for the employee’s entire team, and so on.

This was where the magic happened. An employee’s small, good deeds that could have easily flown under the radar of a busy team manager often got picked up by teammates. Colleagues were encouraged to behave according to the values because many of them love peer recognition. The limited allotment of badges each week and the public display of the recognition messages largely deterred abuse of the system. With public recognition, we had moved beyond signposting of values and were actually drawing attention to value-based behavior. We allowed the staff to become role models to one another, which had a positive impact on most of the employees.

 

Step 3: Measure Values During Appraisals

Although badges can be fun and morale-boosting, this type of program may not be enough to convince every employee that values are crucial. After all, if an employee manages to bring in major contracts or to close an impressive number of sales, what is the harm in cutting them some slack on poor behavior?

If your employee is a team of one, perhaps you can cut some slack — but that should definitely be the exception rather than the norm. Most modern businesses work in teams or pods. An individual team member’s behavior can often have a sizable impact on the morale and performance of the rest of the team. It’s squarely on the manager to rein in a great performer whose behavior nonetheless disrupts or disenfranchises other employees.

One tool is to measure value-based behavior. Sure, behavior is much harder to quantify than sales figures or other outputs, but a rubric is not out of the question. Remember the lists of observed and aspirational behaviors in the first step? Start by assigning a score against each of these behaviors using your company’s existing appraisal system. For example, on a one-to-five scale, an action that is within expectation could carry a score of three, an extraordinary deed would be a four or five, while an undesirable or detrimental action would be a two or one. Rating these things isn’t an exact science, but it doesn’t have to be. What you need here is a consistent framework for how you will measure your team that they can easily understand.

We decided to make that measurement part of the appraisal process. We let staff know about the framework of the value score, and that both their performance score and their value score would inform the decision-making process for their annual bonuses, salary raises, and promotion opportunities. We chose to weigh the two scores equally; you may select a weighting more suitable for your business. If you or your staff is at a loss for how to discuss these during your appraisal meetings, public recognition (i.e., the “badges”) from step two is a useful starting point.

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Put Your Values to Work

Values are vital for the performance of a modern business, but there is no quick-fix to “teach” values to employees. No matter how the world evolves, we all still learn values and behavior from our interactions with and observing others. No amount of value statements or posters or code of ethics books will change that.

Here are things that actually work:

  • Make values relatable to your employees by translating them into tangible behavior.

  • Encourage your employees to openly recognize one another for good deeds.

  • Make value-based behavior count.

Of course, managers should lead by example as well, though that should really go without saying.

Rather than spending disproportionate amounts of time and effort in producing collateral for promoting values, channeling all that energy into highlighting actual value-driven behavior could do wonders for finally making those values stick.

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