Do we really need company values?

Defining organisational values was helpful three decades ago, but the exercise is no longer fit for purpose in 21st-century businesses, argues Arran Heal

Do we really need company values?

Our company ‘values’ are still there on the walls, in Powerpoint presentations and the branded brochures: ‘teamwork’, ‘respect’, ‘customer focus’, ’passion’, ‘integrity’. Those vague, monolithic, sometimes just esoteric company values. Are they an inspiration, a mantra, or really just the forgettable clichés of modern business? Values like these just don’t help create places that are good to work in; it’s only ever how people behave at work that makes for a harmonious, inclusive and cohesive workplace.

Company values became fashionable in the 1990s as a means of encapsulating what a business was trying to achieve, what was important and what mattered. They were part of a heady age when enterprise of all shapes and sizes was glamorous and business leaders themselves could be seen as heroic. Having values was a way to fire up employees, make them feel part of a bigger mission – and most importantly, to get them aligned to the corporate strategy.

In our 21st-century context, the continued belief in values just looks lazy. Do we really believe that staff buy into abstract ideas like these in anything other than the most unthinking of ways, just as part of their work persona? Organisations promote their values anyway, because it’s accepted practice. Maybe it helps somehow? The more enlightened of employers have gone a step further and looked at what their values really mean in terms of everyday behaviour, how those behaviours might be measured and put into performance plans. But most don’t – or what they have on the walls aren’t values in the first place (say, ‘brilliant customer service’), which are more like operational aspirations.

So values don’t do the job they’re supposed to. Worse than that, they aren’t compatible with diversity and inclusion commitments, and either HR or senior management need to be tearing down the values for the sake of inclusion. If employers really want to recognise and harness the essential differences between people, then why would they be espousing a single set of values and forcing them onto their staff? For example, ‘respect’ is one of the most common values referred to. But respect as a concept can mean something different depending on cultural background and personal experience. So respect is something that has to be carefully defined, and as soon as you’ve done that, you’re excluding people.

Leaders in organisations have to start thinking instead about actual behaviours and the personal capacities involved. What really makes a difference to people’s working lives? What can make working in teams such a rewarding and life-enhancing thing? And at the same time, so much more effective and productive for the organisation? The goal of HR, surely, is to bring skilled people together to create the kind of culture that’s good for the organisation and its business. That can’t be achieved through the process of setting up and communicating values. Having an organisational ‘purpose’ might provide a reason to go to work but not how to behave. Employers need to recognise what defines a workplace culture in more real, living terms – and accept that with a diverse working population and in different teams there are going to be many different cultures, not one. In other words, a better way of developing the best kind of culture is by clearly stating behaviours the organisation wants people to exhibit.

At the heart of the issue is how employees interact with each other, how they share and understand and appreciate each other. In other words, good behaviours are rooted in their conversations. Every output from an organisation at some point started with a conversation: it’s the quality of those conversations that improves the quality of the output. This is what we call having ‘conversational integrity’, made up of five capacities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening and situational awareness. These capacities or skills are all fundamental to human interaction: the real levers for what makes an organisation or business perform better. If you want innovative people, then they need to be curious, and listen to others; they need to feel able to take risks and trust their colleagues.

Measuring the impact of behaviours is always a challenge. It’s intangible in many ways, a feel to company culture. Indirectly it could show through engagement scores, in employee reviews or measures like the Psychological Safety Index. Start by talking to staff in practical terms, using a behavioural framework about how they exhibited conversation skills and the particular situations or difficult conversations they have dealt with. But the power of employee behaviours, ‘good’ conversations and a ‘good’ conversational culture is not just common sense; the impact will be seen in bigger ways, through the resilience, better output and the ability to harness difference, retention and success of the organisation.

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP