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Values are nothing. Values are everything.

Updated: Aug 30, 2018

Values are nothing

Famously, Enron’s values were Communication, Respect, Integrity, Excellence. I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet they appeared on documents, monitors and possibly brass plaques all over the building. And we all know how that turned out.


Or how about this?

‘As citizens of this great nation, it is kindness, love, and compassion for each other that will bring us together – and keep us together. These are the values Donald and I will bring to the White House.’ Melania Trump


Just as weighing a pig doesn’t make it heavier, repeating your values (after a point) doesn’t build the culture you want. They’re just words.


Values are everything

So, values achieve nothing. Happy World Values Day.

And yet – by working THROUGH our values, we can create successful, meaningful experiences, together. The link between organisational culture and performance is empirically proven almost beyond doubt; aligned, meaningful cultures lead to engagement, which leads to productivity, creativity, more rapid change, higher customer satisfaction, and prosperity.

Values are design principles for our culture. If business is a board game, the values are the rules. If our culture is a building, values are the blueprint. They are who we are, on our best days, and who we intend to be more of.

Culture is coaxed, coerced, and directed through cumulative nudges, and our values help us make those nudges deliberate, rather than random. Every action we take nudges our organisation’s culture in one direction or another; our values tell us which direction to nudge. Acting through our values creates intended consequences, and limits unintended ones

Lifting our values down from the walls

How do we create more of the right nudges?


Explore our values together

Are our values clear, personal, and co-owned by everyone? Are they honest, relevant, and stretching? Are they a little bit spiky and exciting, or, in a well-meaning attempt not to offend anyone, do they feel a bit vanilla? Have we created space for people to explore and discover meaning for themselves? Life is messy; have we tested out our values in real-life situations?


Share our values proudly

Where do our values show up as ‘content’? How are we referencing them explicitly in our recruitment, processes, performance conversations, social media, management and leadership conversations, reward, office decor, communications, employee programmes? Where can we demonstrate that have we made successful or painful decisions about strategy, customers, product?


Live our values

Are we packing the experience of working here with the right nudges? The stories we tell, the things we celebrate and tolerate, the way we hold ourselves, our attitudes to colleagues and customers, the way we speak to one another (particularly those more and less senior than ourselves), how we book meeting rooms, our travel policies – all these are opportunities to show that values are not just words, and demonstrate the right thing to do.


Claim responsibility for our values

Each of us has the opportunity and responsibility to turn our values from an intention to an accurate description of who we are. Even if HR takes responsibility for ‘the culture plan’, they are not solely accountable for it. The ripples leaders create as they walk through the business are felt by everyone (and it strikes me that ripples spread out behind us, so we often don’t see how wide they reach). What we tolerate, celebrate and address head-on defines our culture and determines whether our values are authentic or not. Every one of us has countless opportunities to create nudges and influence what it feels like to work here.


Values in themselves are nothing – words on a wall, platitudes, good intentions. If we allow them to become design principles, decision-making apparatus, and expectations we all share and uphold though, they help us steer our ships towards engagement, growth, performance and meaning.


In that sense, values are everything.

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