Picture this. You’re starting a new job at a company whose values are really inspiring to you. You found them listed on their website: empathy, innovation, trust, and transparency—all of which is really appealing.
You arrive expecting a company culture guided by these values (which are displayed prominently on the walls, too), but you soon find out that those values have little or no impact on how the organization actually operates. In fact, the culture resembles the opposite of the image they project.
Sound familiar? When you’re working for a company whose stated values don’t quite match up with what you’re experiencing every day, the contradiction couldn’t be more obvious. Maybe the company’s values meant something years ago, but things change and that’s no longer your experience.
If you’ve been in this position you know it can be disheartening to say the least. It’s also a very clear symptom that those values might need to be reworked. Employers, take note: it’s time to come up with a list of values that actually reflects what your people care about. I’m talking about values that have meaning and, most importantly, are lived day to day.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Realize that values are more than branding
You shouldn’t choose values because they look good on a mission statement or sound nice to new hires during orientation. Core values should be the guiding moral framework of your organization: they underpin behavior, actions, culture, purpose, and meaning. In other words, they’re the cornerstone of your organization’s philosophy, and can be observed in action each day.
As companies grow and evolve, priorities shift and new people bring their own values and belief systems into the organization, which gradually influences the culture. Your external brand identity might stay the same, but the way your people work with each other, how they act and behave, may have changed.
If this remains unaddressed, Daniel Elash explains, “the credibility of the leadership is weakened; the focus of the organization is fractured; and the ability to rally people around a necessary change initiative is diminished by the discrepancy between what we say and how we act.”
Updating your company values isn’t only a good thing to do for your people, it’s imperative for maintaining the strength of your organization. Because if people can immediately detect that discrepancy, it’s not only your culture that might suffer.
2. Listen to your people
The next step is easy, kind of. You need to ask your people to outline what matters most to them. Is it finding meaning in their work? Pride in their skills? Achieving impressive results? Don’t feed them these answers, though. It’s important that you listen to what your people have to say. Doing so demonstrates that you’re invested in their unique employee experience within the organization. It gives them a voice.
You’re trying to find out what matters to them, which values they hold dear, but also what values they live every day. Sometimes there’s a big difference between lived and espoused values, especially in the workplace, so you might try framing this a little differently.
For example, you could ask your people to describe values that are embodied in the way they work with each other every day. Some of these could be “open communication,” “efficient use of time,” “respectful of deadlines,” “shares information and keeps everyone notified of project status,” etc.
Another thing you might try is finding out what people don’t value about their everyday work. Are there espoused core values that are fundamentally at odds with how they prefer to work and behave while at work? Now’s the time to find out.
3. Compile a nuanced list
Once you’ve pooled the responses together, it’s time to take stock of what people value in your organization, and find commonalities. Remember, you’re not trying to put together a list of buzzwords. The goal is to condense their answers while preserving the context of the original meaning. In other words, use sentences.
Reducing complex feedback into one-word values like “empathy” and “innovation” is simply too vague and runs the risk of eliminating the original meaning of what your people were trying to get across. Instead, you’re aiming to transcribe feedback into short paragraphs that sum up what matters to your people.
To do this right, and depending on the size of your company, you’ll probably go through multiple drafts to further refine the list. Think of it as a collection of short statements about your people’s value system.
Once you’re happy with how your list of values is beginning to shape up, share it with your people for another round of feedback. Keeping everyone informed is a great way to refine your messaging and ensure that everyone is on board. Incorporate their changes accordingly.
Here’s an example from our own Jostle Declaration, a statement of our core values that was put together in much the same way I’ve described above.
“We believe craftsmanship matters. It’s what drives us. It creates better experiences for us and our customers. To achieve this, we use common sense, take ownership, and keep an open mind.”
You’ll immediately see that this statement is a lot more nuanced, and communicates more contextual information, than it would’ve if it had simply said “craftsmanship.”
4. Recognition as a reminder
Now, we don’t have that statement painted on our walls anywhere, but then again we don’t need to. Values are baked into the way we work together. They’re embedded in strategy meetings, presentations, workflows, and in the work we produce. We also make it a point to acknowledge when people are living their values via a shout-out on our intranet.
Recognition is a great way to celebrate team members and remind people of how core values inform their work, attitude, and behavior. On top of that, celebrating your people for staying true to their values, which are also the organization’s values, sends the message that what matters to them also matters to you.
Updating your company values means reconfiguring the guiding philosophy of your organization. It’s a huge project that’ll require effort from everyone at your organization. But the project itself is an amazing learning experience. You get to discover what matters to your people and what’s more exciting than that?
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