Here is a scenario I have seen played out multiple times:
Someone from leadership, human resources, or the board has decided it’s time to create or update your organization’s value statements. As a way to get people excited about talking about values, a date is set for meeting off-site at some high-end retreat centre – golfing and spa fees are included. Only senior level leaders are invited, and while they enjoy the amenities of the centre, they also spend time developing and even getting excited about their new values. However, when they return to the office and proudly announce their new values, they are confused as to why employees aren’t excited and thus don’t buy into them. Eventually the new values fade away – even for those involved in creating them.
While this scenario likely isn’t your organization’s exact experience for how your value statements were developed, in too many workplaces, staff and sometimes even leaders don’t view values as helpful or important. This is unfortunate since having well developed values that are communicated and applied regularly can be one of the most beneficial things an organization possesses. This is because values clarify how the organization and its staff behave. They provide the framework for making decisions and how staff interact with each other, as well as customers and clients. But without buy-in, values aren’t helpful.
I have learned that when you want buy-in from staff on major issues, it is far better to involve everyone in the discussion. At ACHIEVE, our original values were developed collectively with staff and leaders about a decade ago. They quickly became our guide for how things are done and how we interact with each other. We use them to guide our hiring, performance management, and, occasionally, firing of staff. They are not just words on a wall – leaders and staff know them and value them. And while new employees weren’t a part of our value development process, they are oriented to the history of each value so that the expectation to live them out is clear.
I have learned that when you want buy-in from staff on major issues, it is far better to involve everyone in the discussion.
A few years ago, we realized that, while many of these values still fit for us, perhaps it was time to revisit them. And even if they did all still fit, having a conversation about them would serve to clarify and cement their importance to our organization. This is why we set an intentional time for everyone to revisit our values together.
There were two critical things that we did to set the tone for this meeting. First, the discussion of values was the only reason for the meeting – they weren’t an agenda item tacked on to the end of a long list of other things. Because it is rare for us to have an all-staff meeting that’s only focused on one item, everyone viewed it as important and prepared accordingly. We instructed staff to spend time considering our values ahead of time: Did our existing values still fit? Were there new ones that should be added? At the meeting, it was clear that people had taken this instruction to heart.
The second thing we did was ensure that everyone – ranging from the CEO to our newest employee of two months – was involved in the discussion and would have a part in clarifying and agreeing to our values. It was important that employees weren’t just watching from the sidelines. This was because we know that for organizational values to be effective, everyone needs to agree to and feel good about them. Values can’t feel like something imposed by management or a board.
In larger organizations, it can be difficult to involve everyone in a values discussion and is likely impossible to do in the same way we did. However, there are still creative ways to involve employees in the process. At minimum, staff should have the opportunity to voice their opinions in a survey format, and groups that are meeting to discuss values should be made up of diverse representatives of the organization.
At our values meeting, we had healthy discussion and sometimes debate about whether our existing values were still true and meaningful. After a lengthy and meaningful conversation, we removed one of our values that no longer seemed to fit and ended up adding flexibility. We realized that we had developed a culture that expects everyone to jump in and help when needed. We reject the not-in-my-job-description mentality. We are willing to help each other out on any task because we know it will help us with our mission. This had become so important to us that we wanted to see it reflected in our values.
Currently, these are our five values:
- Embody We practice what we teach
- Engaged We care about our mission and each other
- Flexible We pitch in where needed
- Productive We get things done individually and collaboratively
- Receptive We are open to feedback and improvement
These are the five values that are fundamental to our identity. They are not just words written on a wall – they guide our decisions and interactions, and we hold each other accountable to them. A key memory for me was how this day resulted in a feeling that we are all part of something special, and we are all moving in the same direction. Having truly defined values helps solidify and align how we work towards our daily and long-term goals.
For a detailed guide to developing values, read chapter two of my book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. It’s called “Communicate Your Purpose and Values”.
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