I believe that organisational values as currently practised in most organisations are bunkum with a capital “B”.
There are two reasons for my heretical disbelief.
The first is based on the psychology of humans. We get our own personal, individual values early in life. They are built from our upbringing, and possibly a yet-unknown component of DNA. By the time we enter the workforce as an almost-adult, our values are set. That does not mean to say they cannot change, but it takes either an extraordinary amount of time or a cataclysmic personal event to change them. At induction time, most organisations don’t have the time for the former, or obviously the desire to inflict the latter. In addition, most organisations don’t thoroughly embed their carefully crafted ‘values’ into their recruitment and performance management processes. That would, at least, work to set a bedrock for the culture of the organisation over time.
The second reason is based on observation of the ‘values’ I have seen adorning boardroom walls, intranet and internet pages, and stationery. To illustrate the point, I did an experiment a while ago in the office. Prompted by an article about how an organisation was transforming itself, which also listed its ‘values’, I challenged the team to write down the first six ‘values’ they could think of, and see if they could replicate those in the article.
Even I (a self-proclaimed sceptic) was disappointed in how easy it was to replicate the organisation’s newly-minted values despite knowing nothing about the organisation’s vision and mission, or even its name or the industry it worked in. Synonyms of integrity, courage, innovation, capability, customer centricity, and collaboration were suggested much too easily.
I have a simple test for values. If I reverse them, do they make sense for an organisation to hold? For instance, is there an organisation that would set out to have a dishonest workforce, devoid of integrity? If a value fails this test, it is not a defining, differentiating value. It is a mere table stake, a hygiene factor, a cost of admission. There are some values which we should consider being just plain necessary, for any organisation. Properly-chosen values should define an organisation in the same way as an unambiguous and ambitious strategy. Unfortunately, things tend not to work out that way.
So if choosing and promoting a set of ‘values’ is not a way of creating true alignment of mind and heart of a critical mass of employees and the organisation’s vision and mission, what is?
The answer, of course, is complex.
However, I am very sure of part of the answer. My conviction comes from a combination of reviewing studies, and from real life experiences in which I have been involved.
The starting point is to have a vision and a mission. Let me be particular here: when I say vision, I mean several sentences that describe what it is like for our clients, employees, the general public – and regulators, if necessary – to work with us. It also describes our position in the world, all in present tense. I do not mean a memorable sentence or phrase that has been wordsmithed so much to become so pithy that it loses meaning, because the value each word holds may be interpreted so differently by different people. Unfortunately, as a side issue, this remains the norm for vision statements.
Additionally, when I say mission, I mean a series of sentences that describe the boundaries within which we will operate and the purpose of our being. The same caveats about glorified three word slogans applies to mission statements as well.
The analogy I like to use about vision statements is that they should answer the question: “What do you want your child to be when they grow up?” The similar question for a mission statement is “How will you facilitate that?”
These two powerful sets of statements give all of our employees – from newest recruit to our longest-serving rusted-on board member – a strong view of where the organisation is heading and how we intend to get there, and what boundaries we will not cross. For many people in our organisation, all they need is the destination and the parameters they may influence to get there, clearly articulated and communicated and embedded in the broad performance management system. They are then able to use their capability and experience and personal leadership skills to set a course for themselves, and for their teams, that is aligned with the vision and mission.
For many other people, however, this is not enough. Despite our best efforts of communicating, we do not click with their personal “what’s in it for me?” factors. Meeting the company vision within the boundaries of the mission is not enough.
Many organisations I have worked with at this juncture pull out an engagement survey to gain enlightenment. Most engagement surveys I see, however, only provide lag indicators of engagement, with little information discernable in the data to inform how to engage our employees such that enough of them can see alignment between their personal desires and the organisation’s vision and mission. In other words, you might learn whether or not your people are engaged, but not how to go on and engage them properly.
In my experience, getting increased alignment between employees’ visions for themselves and the organisational vision presupposes employees have a vision for themselves in the first place. My observation is that this is often missing. People, as a rule, don’t discover their purpose in life until late in life, if at all; the ones that do are usually too busy going out disrupting entire industries to bother spending time working for us.
Without individual purpose, there is no personal vision to align to the organisational vision. Thus, the second powerful step in getting alignment is to help our employees discover their purpose in life, understanding that the purpose is often transitory and may change every 3-7 years or so. Not unlike an organisational vision, really.
Personal visions usually encompass something about financial, family or social wellbeing. Usually, outcomes of the organisational strategy to achieve the vision can be reframed to show how achieving those organisational outcomes can closely support personal visions. The reframing can be couched in terms of increased remuneration, skills and knowledge, networks, or even flexibility in balancing work and life.
For those who do not get the connection at this point between personal and organisational vision, one of two things may be true. Either they are not the type of personality who wants to have the burden of a vision which they may fail to reach, or their personal vision may be misaligned. The former case is acceptable. Not everyone is driven, and most people are not, at some stage in their lives. In the latter case, they should find an organisation where their personal vision does align. They will be happier and more productive.
So how do we engineer this crossing of visions that creates a critical mass of people who are aligned with our organisational vision? Aside from the already-stated need to have meaningful and universally understood vision and mission statements, we need to have processes embedded in our development programme where employees get the chance to contemplate their vision, and our line management and Human Resources functions get to help reframe the effort and changes required in personal capability and capacity, to serve both the personal and organisational vision.
To be sure, this can be expensive, requiring workshops perhaps even for a couple of years that are focused on the individual and performance management and development systems that are sympathetic to building the individual. However, the costs of, say, $200,000 for an organisation of 200 people or so, are quickly recouped in in improved retention rates, reduced management time resolving issues stemming from misalignment, increased productivity and increased customer satisfaction.
Can you afford to continue to have misalignment of personal and organisational vision?