The First 25: Taking values beyond promises

Posted in White Papers, Reporting and Sustainability on 14 July 2021
By Catherine Fallon, Head of Employee Experience

How we can ensure company values are more than empty buzzwords and instead have a real and lasting impact.

Years ago, a corporate reputation guru from New York was invited to do the post-lunch ‘graveyard’ slot at a conference for the top 250 leaders of a multinational company. In the audience, pens were poised, but eyes were glazed. On stage, the speaker held up the annual review and read the company values one by one. Stopping at ‘integrity’, he clicked to the first slide to reveal the word on the screen in six feet high letters. He then invited someone to come on stage and explain how they lived this value and to give examples of how the company was acting with integrity. The audience shifted in their seats. Some examples existed, but the lesson was that the leaders were not consciously thinking about their carefully chosen values in their day to day running of the business.

To get ahead of the competition, organisations need to invest in embedding values into ways of working, so they actively influence strategy development, decision-making and the creation of solutions. Only once these foundations are in place will the internal and external benefits of having values start to materialise.

Emperor’s latest research into FTSE 100 corporate disclosure, ‘Navigating the sustainability odyssey’, clarifies the importance of companies having a clear set of values. 100% of the companies reviewed refer to a set of values somewhere within their reporting. However, the study highlights that while many companies confidently state their values, the majority provide little evidence of the positive impact of having values – for employees, customers and society.

Bringing values to life

Demonstrating the tangible benefits of values can be tricky but these practical steps can make a big difference.     

Inspiring action

The research endorses Glencore’s approach to embedding their values into their ways of working, which started by helping its people explore each of the values to understand what they practically meant in day to day roles. This is time well invested, because values stop being words on a page and start to be viewed in a practical way. Managers can support people and teams in thinking about what they are already doing in their roles that aligns to the values. This positive affirmation is critical. 

People should then be encouraged to reflect and decide what new actions need to be taken, so they are more closely aligned to the values. The real game changer though is when values are hard-wired into a person’s annual objectives and performance review.

Finding common ground

There is a benefit to people debating the meaning of values with their peers, rather than just reflecting as an individual. Why? Because tensions exist when it comes to defining what a particular value means and what behaviours are required as a result. Collaboration, for example, could be interpreted by some as meaning that many people should be involved in a decision-making process. To others, it could mean asking an experienced colleague for their perspective before you make your decision independently.

Clearly, there is the potential to interpret the value in different ways, which may cause conflict. By having an open discussion about a particular value, people can hear the perspectives of their peers and so a common understanding can be developed.  

Asking powerful questions

The amount of time a team has for discussions should not be a barrier to having productive dialogue about the meaning of values. One or two punchy, but simple, questions posed by a manager in an operational meeting can deliver progress in helping people relate to the values. Once the values are more understood in the team, the further questions could probe about the benefits for customers, partners and society as a whole.

Showing what ‘good’ looks like 

Ocado, also featured in the report, focused on creating a series of case studies about how employees are living the values, at work and in the community. It is important to make sure that some of the stories are about actions or behaviours that anyone could easily adopt. People need to see that even small changes can make a big difference. 

Challenging the boundaries

By placing the values in the context of a real-life situation, people can really start to challenge and test their approach to living the values. To provoke a team debate, find a scenario that team members can relate to, but where there is likely to be differing opinions. The best ones are when aligning to the values might mean that a revenue target is missed. The question is, do the values become less important when money is on the table? Posing such a dilemma creates a lively debate.

Living values authentically 

We have entered a new era. Investors, clients and employees are no longer willing to commit to an organisation that makes bold promises about their actions and behaviours but then struggles to demonstrate that the values are influencing positive outcomes. 

Belief is critical. Could your leaders and managers stand before their key stakeholders and convince them that the values of an organisation are always front of mind and have a direct influence on how things are done? Would they be compelling? Would they instil confidence? If the answer is less than emphatic, there is still work to be done.


We would love to hear your thoughts on the role of values and how to make them meaningful and authentic. Please get in touch with Catherine Fallon at [email protected] and join the conversation.

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