Does communicating Values actually work?

Here at SAS we refreshed our values in 2010 – no changes to the core principles, just a better way of expressing them.  I thought they were pretty interesting (with the caveat that for those with a more traditional view of “values” that they might not technically be values at all…) – descriptions in shorthand:

Be inventive – about being creative, working smart for the agency and its clients, pushing boundaries, etc.

Be aware– eyes open to what’s happening in the world around you, connected to communities, clients and each other, etc.

Have character – be true to yourself, don’t be afraid to challenge things, act with integrity, etc.

We align these to a matrix which is – with clients; with yourself; with each other which creates a lot of ways to consider and view these values across a range of contexts.

We have a recognition programme where colleagues nominate their peers for demonstrating these values in action – catching people doing it right. 

And yet … we’ve has some feedback from some people that they don’t understand why we do this at all.  That is – “You don’t need to tell me who I am and what I should be doing.”  “I’ve been here seven years, I don’t need to be told about the culture and values.” 

I can of course provide the standard responses to these, but wanted to take a step back and re-assess. 

My question is:  Why bother communicating values and recognising them at any stage past attraction, recruitment and induction (and in performance planning/development)?

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6 thoughts on “Does communicating Values actually work?

  1. Excellent question Kevin, with only two answers I can come up with off the top of my head, assuming that you truly do recruit on values (very rare in my experience).

    The first is for externals and it is to help potential new customers and other stakeholders decide if they want to become actual customers and shareholders.

    The second is internal, and that is as a check to ensure alignment between values, vision, strategies and actions as the organisation grows. This doesn’t require so much communication as a system that allows for regular feedback and review.

    However, most companies have not properly defined values or recruited on values, so they have to communicate them in an attempt to force the creation of a culture. This is rarely successful.

    Cheers, geoff

  2. Hi – Lindsay here from Commscrum

    Totally appreciate your query, Kevin.

    Another similar one is: why do communicators think their job is to help people understand how their work fits into the wider organizational strategy? What – are people going to say “Oh, I see that I should be doing something differently now that someone has told me what our company is doing”?

    The only reason why values / company direction content might be interesting to existing staff, I think – is either if something has changed or as a refresher. Either way – let’s not think it’s a big deal. After all – people have got work to do.

    Cheers, Lindsay

  3. Values exist in all organisations – the question is whether you attempt to capture them in a formula, or not (or perhaps too often, formalise some random values unconnected to the unstated values that really drive the place).

    In a small-ish outfit with clear personal connections between people (up to, say 150 people?) I’d hope the flavour and ethos of the company culture needs little or no formalising. In larger orgs, with plenty of hiding places for counter-cultures and corrupted values, it can be worth doing, for two main reasons:

    a) involving people in agreeing what the values are serves the ‘refresher’ purpose Lindsay mentions.
    b) it equips employees to challenge behaviours that are contrary to the company’s stated intentions (a little bit, at least).

  4. To pick up on a conversation topic at the SAS event, different peoples around the world react differently to statements of values. Bob Waisfisz (whose views on culture I deeply respect) suggests that in the USA you can be direct about culture and values, but in many other parts of the world (including Europe) it’s typically more effective to be less direct about them.

    What does that mean? I’d say that away from the areas you list (attraction -> performance development) it’s best to think about stories and archetypes that express the values implicitly. The value of the values (ick) is that they help people decide how to act in situations where there’s no rulebook. Many people are most receptive to building such heuristics for themselves when given examples that illustrate the right way to act, without being pushed on the abstract value underlying it. So, put the explicit values list in the drawer… and concentrate on expressions.

    I think the question of building heuristics is a real one, so I have to disagree with Lindsay overall, it is about how real work is done and, as I blogged about recently, cultures/values/heuristics do drift, so if you don’t work to channel them, you may get unwelcome changes. And of course, if you’ve chosen to alter the strategy of the organisation, you may need to redirect the culture, else you may not see much real change.

    Of course, being implicit means you can’t run a recognition program for them. Is that a big loss? I’d guess not, but every organisation differs – one shouldn’t lightly throw away something if it’s become a useful part of how you do things…

    There’s also the question of the size of the organisation. The smaller it is, the less you can make useful “broadcasts” about “our culture” because people will feel (rightly or wrongly) that it’s not telling them anything they don’t know. My experience is that the bigger and more distributed the corporation is, the more amenable people are (at least before they are made cynical by crappy campaigns) to hearing statements about collective identity, because they have a feeling they don’t know it all.

    Finally, I think it’s worth raising the problem that faces all of us who help other organisations define their values – are we as good at giving ourselves advice about our values statement as we are at giving advice to others? When we tell them to be brave and in particular, distinctive, do we manage to do that too? Very often if people in the organisation are unimpressed with the values statement, it’s a sign that it isn’t distinctive enough and feels like it could have been generated at the last place we worked in this sector too…

  5. Coming to this one a bit late, so difficult to add to the excellent comments above – Geoff’s last paragraph in particular speaks volumes. So instead, can I ask another (potentially stupid) question?

    I’m just curious – what made for the burning need to refresh/explicitly communicate SAS’ values in the first place?

  6. Great comments all and far more useful than [some twat] saying “Values are behaviours, Kevin.” Tell me something I don’t know!

    The real drive has been to recruit to our values and ensure we have non-financial (eg BSC) measures to aid performance and development planning – both of which are working really well.

    I agree to some degree we might be too “small” to really need values per se, but there is a real passion at the leadership level to ensure people use some core principles in decisions and felt simple values would help heep us fom drifting as we grow. The people who have been here 10 years “get it” – the values are a sort of sort cut for new people (who should be right if we are recruiting to the values succesffully)…

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