Company Values — top down or bottom up?

September 17, 2021
Example of company values on an office wall
The problem

Many companies are recognising a problem with values…

  • They are all the same.
  • Employees don’t know what their company’s values are.
  • No one knows how to embed values in day to day actions and decisions.
  • Employees struggle to apply values to decisions.
  • It’s unclear how values affect roadmaps, budgets cuts, restructuring and workload demands.
  • At times there’s a big difference between the executive talk and the walk on values.

But, let’s not dwell on the problem, let’s talk about the solution!

A healthy organisation has clear values that guide but don’t dictate employee decisions. We don’t want to throw out values but we do need to rethink how we create them and embed them to change culture for the better.

Current Approach: Top Down

The current approach to defining organisational values runs like this:

  1. First, huddle. The conversation about values is reserved for a few — the exec team, HR and communications. There are lots of reasons given for this; it’s practical, it represents those that have the “founding spirit”.
  2. Then, brainstorm. This takes many dimensions: What matters to us? How do we want to behave? What kind of people do we want to attract? What behaviours will make the team and company successful as a whole?
  3. Next, combine and review. Do the values overlap? Are they balanced but not contradictory? Are they distinctive or like hundreds of other organisations?
  4. Finally, communicate.

To create a company values statement, a process like this needs to happen. For some this would be a great step forward. But, it’s not enough on its own.

Co-creating values, combining a top down and bottom up approach, can reinvigorate organisations by engaging employees, improving performance and increasing productivity. Leaders need to combine a top down and bottom up approach when creating values.

A Better Approach: Involve everyone

Creating values bottom up (and top down) doesn’t have to be messy or overly time consuming, but it does need bravery. Asking employees what they think means you need to listen. Co-creation of values provides the opportunity to tap into the undoubted energy and enthusiasm we all have to about what we do every day.

An example of Saberr's personal profile feature to measure personal values:

Step 1: Individual‍

‍Start with the individual. Ask team members to recognise their own values.

‍This will immediately connect them to the broader debate. It sounds obvious, but until we take the time out to do so, most people don’t consider what’s really driving them. As individuals recognise what’s important to them — they engage, they start to realise ‘values’ aren’t empty words which is a powerful step forward.

‍It’s important to remember that we can’t expect to change the values of the individuals, but ask them to respect the organisation values. That’s a subtle difference that get’s lost too often.

Step 2: Team

‍The next stage is for people to understand their values as a team. What are the similarities? Where are we most different, where we will need to “bridge” relationships? What are our dominant values in the team?

Of course there will be differences between team members and teams, this is a good thing, risk management will probably have different values to the sales team and you probably wouldn’t want it any other way. What this means is that when employees need to collaborate across teams they can look to the company values for guiding principles. If they’ve been involved in the values creation they’ll have the confidence and assurance that they can lean on them when more complex decisions need to be made.

Step 3: Organisation

Start here by gathering views on the behaviours that are most important for the organisation. Be specific — values and related behaviours form the foundation of culture. What are the three things that are important to us as an organisation? What do we want the organisation to be remembered for? Remember, these perspectives will change by team by region by seniority, don’t waste the wealth of knowledge you get from this diverse input.

Step 4: Playing it back

‍There are many ways the data could be played back. Visualisations of world clouds can be swift. Stories and anecdotes can be powerful. If possible, each team should be encouraged to share ideas and interpretations face to face.

These sessions can have many benefits, employees and leaders sharing discussion about vision and values is powerful stuff. It’s guaranteed to increase engagement and alignment to the vision.

Step 5: Integration and impact

Now you’ve got a whole company view, the huddle can now reform so that you can shape the values statement.

A healthy organisation involves all employees in shaping culture and connects individual’s values and team values to the organisation. As a result, individuals and teams understand what behaviours they can expect from each other and compromises that they might need to make.

If you don’t do anything to act on the values, they are just words. The added benefit of a co-creation approach is that you can build in the mechanisms to act on values — processes such as hiring on values, resource management, team development.‍

The impact that you will see from co-creation is significant. First, you’ll have a well crafted values statements. Second, these statements will mean something to your team members because they have a sense of ownership and involvement. Third, you’ll have mechanisms to embed and measure values going forward.

So be brave and ask the question.

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