First appeared in ‘A.I.V.C.I.’ (Australia)

What are the values in your Organisation? What are the values for your part of the Organisation? Where did they come from? Are they written down? What happens when they don’t match the behaviour?

Lots of questions – lots to think about. So let’s start at the beginning. No doubt you have a set of values. Surely you’ve something in the bottom of your desk drawer on a card or a sheet of A4 with a combination of the following words; “respect”, “professional”, “honesty”, “value”, “excellence”, “customer”. Yes? So where did this come from? I’ll give you a few options;

1. It was in your induction pack when you joined and no one’s really sure how it got there.

2. The Board had an away day at a large hotel out near Swindon, returned with this and sent out copies to all.

3. You took your team away to a large hotel near Swindon, returned with this and haven’t looked at it since.

4. None of the above.

Unless the answer is ‘4’ I’m guessing this piece of card doesn’t mean a great deal to you. Which is not to say that there’s no merit in having a set of values. I think it’s vital to all Organisations to know what they’re about and what’s acceptable and not acceptable in their teams.

The problem with assigning a set of values to people is the same problem as trying to force them to accept anything – It’s called psychological reactance. Jack Brehm has carried out a lot of research on this from the mid sixties. Reactance occurs when an individual feels that his or her freedom is being restricted. Some examples will help explain it; a group of people were studied that expressed no preference as to which of two brands of cigarettes they would choose from a vending machine. In the machine there was only one brand of cigarette available – the other brand had been removed. Suddenly the majority of people wanted the other, removed brand and were willing to walk quite a way to get the other brand.

I’m sure Kinsey used the same technique in relation to some sex therapy technique – If you expressly forbid people to do something – they’ll want to do it all the more. Those of you with children know this to be a universal truth. One final example, a friend with an 18 year old son asked him where he was going as he was getting ready to go out. After the usual surly response my friend said to his son as he was going out the door “Oh well – have a good time.” To which the reply was “Don’t tell me what to do”. Slam.

So imposing doesn’t work. Imposing your values definitely doesn’t work. So what do you do? You let people decide their own set of values. This works so much easier with a new team. There is less history (obviously) and less baggage. New teams tend to be more committed, motivated and open. Perhaps the best example of this in action is the 1997 British Lions tour of South Africa where they devised a set of values for the tour before boarding the plane. These values centred on being focused, committed and involved total support and team work. They were carried everywhere and invoked whenever there was a breach of these values. It certainly worked. I know it’s different for you without a common enemy, common strategy and group of disparate individuals to mould into a winning team. Well, maybe not that different.

Trying to get your team to achieve an agreed, worthwhile set of values is not easy. There is a history within teams. There is a history about values, mission statements, etc… It’s almost become a reactant in itself in some companies where they’ve had mission statements, visioning and values rammed down their throats and seen no change at all. So you’ll need to be pretty thick skinned and determined to get it to work. You’ll also need some powerful examples and commitment.

A great example comes from BMW “Excellence through quality and innovation”; BMW employ more than 100 staff in their acoustics and vibration technology departments. They ensure that everything from the sound of the windscreen wipers to the sound of the doors closing is acoustically perfect. This seems to work for BMW.

Another from 3M; “The key: linking growth in individuals to those things that unlock energy and activities that our customers value.” The Organisation allows scientists to spend 15 percent of their time working on whatever interests them and requires divisions to generate 30 percent of their revenues from new products introduced in the past four years, amongst a range of other initiatives demonstrating innovation and trust in their employees.

You’ll also need a sound process to turn this into something tangible. Ask people to come out with their lists of values. No doubt you’ll get “good teamworking”, “professional” and “an honest approach to customers”. Don’t deride these. These are important and need to be kept. However, you need to dig hard to find out what is special about your team. What would your team members say set them apart from others? Or, what would they like to set them apart from others – is it technical excellence, willingness to take risks, total support all the way up the line, attention to detail? If you can identify one key value then it will make all the others real.

Then the hard task is to describe them in a way that doesn’t kill them. If a key value is “Don’t take crap from suppliers” please don’t change it to “Have care and respect for all stakeholders” – keep it.

The next part will be to have them listed in whatever format works. I’ve seen an old, fading flipchart sheet with a scribble of values given pride of place in an office 18 months after its design. I’ve seen screensavers, playing cards, nothing at all. Whatever works. Don’t tell people how they keep it though. I remember a chat with a professor at a leading business school pulling a list of key values from his wallet.

“I need a piece of paper telling me to be nice to people now do I? ” he ranted. “I wonder if I lost this would it be OK for me to go on a killing spree?” he half joked. – reactance kicking in again.

The only way to keep the values real after this day is to live them. You can’t have a value espousing the virtues of risk taking then sacking someone who’s idea failed. It’s about honouring those values of risk-taking. When General Electric spent $50 million on an expensive, environmentally friendly light bulb that no one wanted they, in the words of Jack Welch, “..celebrated their great try. We handed out cash management awards..”

So, there are only 2 things to remember; encourage your team to create their values and support them. Sounds straightforward enough?


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