The 2 most common values traps, and how to avoid them

HR professionals are being urged to play a strategic role in pushing values as the key mechanism to create a positive, productive culture

Increasingly, HR professionals are being urged to play a strategic role in pushing values as the key mechanism to create a positive, productive culture, writes Steve Simpson

This is occurring during times when there has never been such a wide range of pressures placed on the HR function. Performance management, employee engagement, talent management, training and development, organisational development, OHS and EHS, attraction, retention and innovation are some, but not all of the responsibilities being pushed the way of HR.

This is placing enormous pressures on people within HR. While this latest drive towards HR’s involvement in values is well intended, it is quite possibly misguided. Values have inherent appeal. They articulate aspects of the culture that an organisation is aspiring to and few can disagree with them.

It’s hard to argue with values such as boldness, integrity, accountability and openness (Wesfarmers’ values), or with safety, integrity, leadership, flexibility, respect, support and professionalism (Victoria Police), or with “We enjoy what we do, we work together, we exceed customer expectations, we make things happen, and we take it personally.” (McLaren Automotive in the UK).

“While this latest drive towards HR’s involvement in values is well intended, it is quite possibly misguided”

So what is the problem with embracing an organisation’s values? There are two flaws that are inherent in values within many organisations. These are half ‘heartedness’ and a lack of strategic focus.

Half-hearted values
When working with leadership teams, there is a simple question that we often ask as an indicator of the seriousness with which that team takes its culture: What are your organisation’s values?

Of course, if the team scrambles to find written versions of the values to which they can refer, then it’s a given that values are not taken seriously.

But even if the team is able to recite the values, that in itself is not sufficient evidence they are taken seriously. Further exploration is required to determine whether leaders have a genuine desire to personally and collectively ‘live’ the values.

“If the values are not being treated seriously, there is a good chance they are doing more damage than if there were no values at all”

The point here is this: If the values are not being treated seriously, there is a good chance they are doing more damage than if there were no values at all. Half-hearted attempts at values provide fodder for employees (and leaders) to fuel cynicism. People come to the view (rightly) that values are mere talk, referenced when it’s convenient or useful at the time.

Lack of strategic focus
Even if values are taken seriously, it’s possible that they are failing to have a strategic impact, or that their potential benefits are not being realised. That’s because they may not be strategically framed.

In our culture work with organisations, we pose to leaders what we think is a very important question: What are the key cultural attributes you need in place to ensure your future success and to make this a great place to work?

Asking this question re-focuses people’s thinking in two ways – first, it reframes the notion of culture as the foundation stone upon which everything rests.

“It’s only once the values are being treated seriously by leaders and the values are strategically focused that the real work on values begins”

Second, the question gets people thinking about the culture in a strategic way, as a fundamental leadership aspect necessary for the organisation’s success.

Now it’s possible that an organisation’s values, as stated, have a strategic orientation. It’s also possible that they do not.

It’s only once the values are being treated seriously by leaders and the values are strategically focused that the real work on values begins. Values need to integrate and connect with a range of HR-related functions.

Integrating values
In our work with organisations, we’ve learned that one of the most underutilised and avoided leader responsibilities relates to performance management.

If it occurs at all (and it doesn’t in many organisations), the outdated yet still functioning performance management ‘formula’, implicitly understood by all parties goes like this:

Part 1: The leader shares insights into what the employee is doing well, which sometimes involves soliciting the employee’s views. During this part of the process, the employee is metaphorically holding his or her breath waiting for the next segment to come

Part 2: The leader shares insights into what the employee ought to be doing better. However framed, the both parties know this is the most important part of the process which focuses on articulating employee deficits. During this time, the employee hopes there is a minimum number of surprises and that the list of offerings is not too long and not too serious.

“One of the most underutilised and avoided leader responsibilities relates to performance management”

Of course, if performance management is to be taken seriously, a large part of it ought to be devoted to a conversation where both parties explore the extent to which the values are being ‘lived’ by both employee and leader.

But this is not the only domain in which the values need to be integrated and explored.

Values need to link to leader messaging, what gets rewarded and recognised, the hiring (and firing) processes and much more.

And just like the organisation’s finances and KPIs are constantly measured and reviewed, so too should the organisation’s values and culture.

Measuring values
The vast majority of tools designed to measure culture are framed around a pre-determined framework against which the organisation is measured and often compared. This is flawed thinking.

An alternative approach would see measurement of the organisation’s performance against those aspects of the culture most important to its future success – most often articulated through the Values.

This can be done by unearthing the unwritten ground rules (or UGRs, which incidentally, constitute an organisation’s culture) linked to each of the values.  So for example, if an organisation has a value of ‘respect’, the prevailing UGRs could be acquired by getting people to anonymously complete the sentence ‘Around here, people are treated …’

“For too long, the HR function has been at risk of being sidelined by ‘busy work’ directed to it that others wish to avoid”

Similarly, if an organisation has a value of ‘innovation’, then people could be invited to complete the sentence ‘Around here, when someone comes up with a new idea …’

HR’s role
For too long, the HR function has been at risk of being sidelined by ‘busy work’ directed to it that others wish to avoid.

It’s time for HR to regain the place it deserves at the leadership table by focusing on what is central to the performance of individuals, teams and the organisation. HR should play a pivotal role in helping shape the culture – strategically framed – through the organisation’s values.

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