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  • Writer's picturedragonfish

6 tips for defining and embedding values

Updated: Apr 17, 2019

We understand how daunting a task undertaking a values project can be, so we will share our 6 tips to consider when looking at defining and embedding vision, purpose and values.

Close the importance gap first

A well-executed Values programme is your CEO’s way of aligning company-wide behaviours to the right business outcomes. However, to ensure that your programme gets the support and commitment it needs from your top team, you may need to do some alignment and education first.

It's not about happy staff and free fruit... it's about performance.

The typical Exec team doesn’t place a level of importance on developing values that is in line with the potential impact on business performance. As leaders, it is our job to help our peers and exec teams see the connection between strong values, behaviours, culture and performance. Once these connections are understood, the business case becomes a no-brainer.


Most large companies work hard to differentiate their organisation as an employer – fine-tuning their employer brand to become the first choice for talent.

Equally, most large companies work hard to differentiate their marketing, product and service propositions – building their consumer brand to drive preference and loyalty.

So why is it that when it comes to ‘the bit in between’ – the values we use to signal how our businesses should operate and deliver the above – that we all choose the same words?

"55% of all Fortune 100 companies have 'integrity' as one of their values, and 45% have 'teamwork'" Harvard Business Review

While these might be true, unless your company is willing to adopt unusually tough measures to demonstrate that it holds higher standards of integrity or teamwork than most companies – then it all becomes a bit meaningless.

If the words you choose to set expectations around the way your staff need to behave are similar to those used by every other brand in your market – then surely there is some competitive advantage lost?

Beware of consensus

This isn’t going to be the most popular point I’ll make all day – because I know a lot of people believe in ‘bottom up’ values creation.

From our experience of working with organisations on defining (or re-invigorating) values, we often see that previous values initiatives have been used as an employee engagement initiative in itself. Surveys, focus groups, workshops and town hall meetings to gather input and build consensus are all delivered in ways that make the process of defining values an inclusive, feel-good effort.

In our view, this is exactly why 55% of companies end up using the same words.

If a large, diverse group of employees are tasked with co-creating values, they inevitably paint a fairly generic picture of what makes up a ‘nice’ place to work.

"Values initiatives have nothing to do with building consensus. They are about imposing a strategically-sound set of beliefs on a broad group of people." Harvard Business Review

Consensus-led values initiatives are flawed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they integrate suggestions from your “laggards” (those who probably don’t belong in your company and don’t want to be there). Secondly, it creates the false impression that all input is equally valuable, when in reality we all know it isn’t. There is often a small group of senior managers in your organisation with a firm grasp of the direction the business is heading, and a unique, informed view on your culture today and the behaviours you need to achieve your goals. It is essential not to dilute this clarity and insight with an overly democratic approach.

Most Executive teams understand the dangers of consensus-driven decision-making when it comes to strategy, finance and operations, so why do they turn a blind eye when it comes to values and culture?

Less is more. Form a small group including the CEO

The ideal process for defining values starts with asking your people for input, (Note: input, not consensus), and then forming a small group to answer some fundamental questions that will inform an effective set of values.

  • What has made your organisation successful to date?

  • How does it need to change to achieve your Vision?

  • What behaviours are currently lacking that we need to achieve our future goals?

  • Why do our best people stay?

Answering these questions as part of an insight-driven, reflective process will give you a solid foundation for defining values that are set to maintain performance, while future-proofing your business. Keep the good stuff going while creating a change in mindset and behaviours in the right areas.

The only person who is truly responsible for your organisations' culture is your CEO

It is critical that your CEO is an active participant in this part of the process. Not only will he/she have a unique take on the future of the business and how it needs to change, but they are also the only person who can hold everyone accountable to making your values stick. Your CEO needs to believe your values, and feel personally responsible for making sure they don’t become just words on the wall. This won’t happen if they haven’t been central to the process.

How they are written matters

Values have to be meaningful – it’s our job to make them mean something to all levels. Why? Because hollow values are far from harmless, they are often destructive, leading to cynical and dispirited employees and undermined managerial credibility.

The best way to make values meaningful is to write them in ways that are memorable and exciting, but also real and easy for everyone to relate to.

There are a variety of ways to express values in ways that inspire:

  • Written as part of a manifesto enables you to create a distinctive tone and personality. Click here to see an example from Gourmet Burger Kitchen.

  • Written as a set of beliefs can be helpful for employees to make a quick assessment as to how philosophically aligned they are to the company. If or how they are going to need to change their natural style to be a natural fit for the company culture. Click here to see an example from Google.

  • Written as a challenge – as a call to adventure, can also go a long way in building confidence and pride. Click here to see an example from Under Armour.

An effective set of values are distinctive enough to be helpful in attracting and retaining the right type of people for your organisation. Reading them should provoke a reaction, good or bad. A potential candidate should be able to spend two minutes reading your values, and start to feel either a strong affinity for what you stand for – or a natural distance. Either is helpful before more time and money is spent on the recruitment or retention of individuals who don’t believe what you believe.

Once your values are as distinctive and motivating as they can be, now it is time to take “the awkwardness test’.

Will your managers feel awkward giving one of their team feedback (positive or negative) based on one of your values?

Unfortunately, the only way to really test this is to start saying things out loud. Gather a small group who don’t mind embarrassing themselves and give them a few scenarios to road test the values. If using any of your values in a real conversation feels even slightly awkward, then go back and refine, using more straightforward language until it doesn’t.

For values to become useful, they need to be part of every day language in your organisation. If they don’t feel natural, they won’t be used.

Consequence is king (the good, the bad and the ugly)

There is no shortage of ideas and activity that will help you to embed your values. Ways to make sure values become behaviours, and ultimately the way things are done around here – from how they are launched and communicated to visible leadership and role modelling, and everything in between. All are important, and in reality the sum of the parts are greater than the whole, but the one ingredient that must be in the mix is consequence.

Firstly, there must be some consequence of NOT behaving in line with values.

This is the slightly uncomfortable bit. It’s hard to be unapologetic for what you stand for, but organisations considering values initiatives should first come to terms with the fact that part of making values stick is sticking to them. And that can mean having some difficult conversations with people who aren’t.

Why is negative consequence important?

If a small group are seen to be behaving in ways that are at odds with your values, and nothing is being done about it, then that makes it really difficult to create the culture you need. It undermines everything.

"The most cited reason for lack of engagement with values is that there is one rule for senior managers and another rule for everyone else" CIPD Employee Outlook Report 2016

We would always advocate building behavioural feedback into your Performance Management Process, annual reviews and your Bonus and reward system.

Talking about changing the bonus structure to embed the right behaviours is always an illuminating measure of how important your culture is to your leadership team. Are you willing to let you best sales person earn less because they behave badly? If you are not willing lose (or even fire) someone for consistently and knowingly behaving at odds with your values, then you are better off not having them.

On a more positive note – there is nothing more effective at giving values momentum and ‘life’ in an organisation than peer-to-peer recognition.

After all we’re only human – if we do something well and get thanked for it, we do it again. And if we see someone else behaving in a certain way and getting recognised for it – we’re more motivated to give it a try. Basic psychology.

Peer-to-peer recognition is far more effective than traditional, top down recognition programmes (employee of the month, etc.) because it creates hundreds of stories about what living a particular value means in day-to-day practical terms. As we all know real stories are really powerful.

In summary

So there we have it, our top tips for anyone looking to embark on a process of defining or redefining their values would be:

  1. Close the importance gap first.

  2. Differentiate.

  3. Beware of consensus.

  4. Less is more. Create a small group including the CEO.

  5. How they are written matters.

  6. Consequence is king.


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