You will definitely have seen them; whether they are scrawled across office noticeboards, tentatively tagged onto the bottom of industry newsletters, or blazoned over branding material; organisational value statements are commonplace. For better or for worse, from Etsy to Twinings to Proctor and Gamble, the leaders of organisations big and small are under increasing pressure to present themselves and their goals in association with something akin to “ethical”.
Before rolling our eyes at what might understandably look like another social media trend, we at Seventh Wave were keen to have a closer look at the potential benefits of (and problems with) defining work practices according to value statements.
What is a value statement?
There is a difference between what a value statement should be, and what a value statement can end up looking like. With the best intentions in the world, throwing together a set of words or phrases that sound “non-evil” is not quite enough to establish an effective value statement for your organisation.
Values and virtues in themselves can be elusive and complex, and it is important both to understand and effectively define your organisational values in terms of the context for your staff and everyday practices.
A good value statement provides a strong ideology that defines how your organisation operates, markets and engages - within itself and with the outer world. This involves throwing out philosophical or vague language like “ethical” and “virtuous”, as these can mean anything and nothing to anyone and no-one.
Examples of effective value statements are more grounded in real work. For instance, the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust have “To do what I say I’m going to do” as one of their core commitments. Not only does this statement emphasise personal meaning for staff by use of ‘I’ and not ‘you’, but it has a clear instruction for behaviour and communication between staff as well as in interactions between staff and community. Within a busy and unfortunately over-burdened NHS organisation, this commitment is also entirely appropriate for establishing some necessary boundaries.
Conversely, a statement like “Deliver on everything I am asked to do” might be unsuitable in a demanding healthcare environment, even though it is well-written and specific. This yields to the importance of having value statements that are partial to the type of organisation in question.
When do value statements go wrong?
We have talked about vagueness and context-irrelevance as big no-nos for value statements, but there are many other reasons that these statements can fall short. Crucially, not involving staff in decision-making is a huge mistake in the process of writing value statements.
The staff in your organisation are your organisation, so unless value statements speak to them and their day-to-day work, they will not be endorsed.
The reason that many organisations fall short in this sense is understandable (though not forgivable) given that it has become increasingly necessary for organisations to maintain a shiny social media and online presence. It is easy to become preoccupied with presenting a façade of organisational purity on-screen and forget that values have to be lived; not merely written.
“Culture is the way people behave when no-one else is watching…” (David Liddle)
When do value statements inspire greatness?
Value statements can be highly effective, when they are constructed in a reflective, collaborative manner by staff and leaders. Many organisations have workshops where individuals can come together and speak about the working culture they want to inspire, and the fundamental behaviours that enable this.
When done well, this can be a profound approach for promoting ways of working that enable positive consequences. Evidence from The Great Place to Work Institute shows that organisations with a strong values culture even benefit from better financial outcomes. In 2014, 97% of the top organisations in terms of significantly elevated financial results were those with value statements.
These findings reflect just how powerful value statements can be when they dictate the behavioural culture of an organisation in a way that genuinely affects outcomes.
The Bottom Line
In asking the question of whether value statements are meaningless, the quality of the statement itself and how it was constructed determines the answer. We have established that a well-defined, staff-led value culture can be beneficial for organisational practices.
Key questions to ask when reflecting on the benefits a particular value statement include:
· Do I fully understand what the value statement means for my day-to-day work?
· How does this word or phrase make me feel (e.g. Am I inspired and energized or am I left empty?)
· Why might this statement speak/not speak to me? (e.g. Is the message simply not clear? Does the value contradict the reality of my organisation’s culture?)
Essentially, value statements are as meaningful as they are made. As long as the right considerations are made, value statements are a powerful way of establishing a unified and productive organisational culture.
Olivia is Seventh Wave's Head of Operations, and believes in the indispensability of mental health awareness in the workplace, having spent time supporting individuals in thriving in both their private and professional lives.