Want to drive real culture change? 7 steps for turning values into standards

leadership values culture change

If you want to maximise the performance of your organisation or team, values must be turned into shared standards, writes Peter Fuda

Every organisation has values. The challenge, however, is that these are usually different from those written on the poster. To cite an infamous example, Enron’s espoused values were communication, respect, excellence and, you guessed it, integrity!

There’s no disagreement at the level of platitudes. This may shock you, but I’ve never seen a values statement that says, “we aspire to lie, cheat, steal, slander and pillage.” The challenge is to move from high-level agreement on your values to a deep-level of alignment on the expected standards of behaviour.

The gap between espoused values and how people actually behave in organisations is a function of several factors. At the most basic level, we judge ourselves by our noble intentions, but we judge everyone else by their actions. In essence, we have a lower standard, a lower benchmark for ourselves, than we do for others. I may consider myself high on integrity because it is part of how I see myself, but if I don’t deliver on my commitments to you, you can justifiably claim that I lack integrity.

At an executive leadership summit, I asked the 500 delegates to close their eyes and raise their hands if they considered themselves to be of high integrity. When the delegates opened their eyes, every hand in the room was in the air. I then asked them to close their eyes again and raise their hands if they agreed that their colleagues shared their same high level of integrity. When they opened their eyes this time, only a third of the hands were raised. The insight reached by the delegates from this simple exercise was that we judge ourselves by our noble intentions, but we judge everyone else by their actions.

We often assume values are a “where to”, when in fact they are best positioned as a “how to”. When you say, “this is our vision and these are our values”, you position them as an aspiration. You might as well say, “I hope we have integrity one day”.

“We judge ourselves by our noble intentions, but we judge everyone else by their actions”

Sometimes our values are actually in conflict with our aspirations. We may value consistency, but if our vision is to be the most innovative company in our industry, then we have misalignment.

Living by stated values requires courage; it’s usually easier to go with the flow than to be clear and unapologetic about what you stand for.

Perhaps most importantly, we all have different rules that determine how we experience a particular value. Usually, these rules are unconscious or at least unspoken. In order to experience the value of respect, I may have ten things that need to happen in perfect synchronicity, while you may experience respect if team members speak politely to one another.

The simplest and most effective way to bring values to life in your organisation is to turn them into standards. Standards are the agreed rules for your values.

When we define our values, we are effectively answering the question; “What do we value?” When we define our standards, however, we are answering the question “How would we know or what would we see if we were living this value?” Until we have something that’s observable, we have not yet defined a standard.

There are a number of benefits to having an agreed set of standards in your team or organisation. Shared standards:

  • Help you to create a game you can win. Rather than encouraging others to subjectively interpret what is desired, you set clear and shared expectations for behaviour.
  • Enable you to raise accountability. You cannot say to your team, “we all need to raise our values”, but you can say, “we must raise our standards”. Standards are a call to action.
  • Diminish the need for policies, rules and bureaucracy, because shared standards provide guideposts for effective decision making.
  • Provide a language for concepts that may otherwise be fluffy or esoteric. In essence, they enable you to give the “soft stuff” sharp edges.
  • Allow you to more easily identify those who are not a good fit for your organisation; although, more often than not, they will identify themselves first.
  • Help you to increase trust in your organisation. People are encouraged to give each other the benefit of the doubt and move forward together, rather than get stuck in politics and silos.

“If you want to maximise the performance of your organisation or team, having a set of values is not enough”

Values are not enough. If you want to maximise the performance of your organisation or team, having a set of values is not enough. You must turn those values into shared standards. This exercise will generally cost you nothing but can have an immediate and lasting impact on your culture and performance.

7 steps for turning values into standards

  • Shared standards must be observable; they answer the question “How would we know?” or “What would we see?”
  • Avoid clichés and management jargon. Instead, be simple and explicit. This simplicity allows them to be a reference point for critical decisions.
  • Your standards need to represent the minimum expected behaviour, not an aspiration.
  • Define only a critical few, with the biggest potential impact. This will enable you to raise the bar for performance in your organisation.
  • Until the most senior leaders are role models for your standards, there is no legitimacy in asking others to commit.
  • Have a close look at your people and performance systems to see if they promote or inhibit the standards.
  • Hire, promote and fire in alignment with the standards. The single most powerful way to embed standards in an organisation is to remove a senior leader who is getting results but not living the agreed standards.