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What Matters Most

Our centre has accidentally overcharged a family. It was a genuine mistake, and it happened several weeks ago. The family have since paid the account without questioning the overcharge. What do we do? If every staff member in our centre knew (really, really, knew) that honesty was fundamental to the way we operate. That dishonesty was never acceptable…


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This Pivot: Why we should take the time to define our centre’s core values and why we should make sure everyone in our organisation knows what they are.

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Our centre has accidentally overcharged a family.

It was a genuine mistake, and it happened several weeks ago. The family have since paid the account without questioning the overcharge.

What do we do?

If every staff member in our centre knew (really, really knew) that honesty was fundamental to the way we operate and that dishonesty was never acceptable, and if every staff member heard often how important honesty was and saw this being demonstrated and acclaimed repeatedly, and if our staff knew that we would close the centre before we would do anything dishonest as it was that important to us, then no one would have to think about it or even get permission for the refund. The refund would just happen automatically.

That’s the beauty of core values.

They help our staff (and us) make decisions.

And they save us work.

What are Values?

  • Core values are an organisation’s fundamental beliefs.
  • Core values are deeply ingrained principles.
  • Core values are the essence of an organisation’s identity.
  • Core values are sacrosanct; they can never be compromised.

Why Have Values?

In 1994 Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last. Their book made the compelling case that the best companies adhered to a set of principles called core values. Since then, almost all major companies have gone through the process of defining their values.

There are five main reasons why we should have well-thought-out values for our organisation.

  1. Core values help decision-making. Spelling out what we stand for tells our staff how to act. They can often make (and justify) many decisions themselves based purely on our values (Google’s original “Don’t be evil” motto – since changed – is a blunt example). Core values can also help us avoid biases in our decision-making (we discussed thinking biases in Nudge, Nudge, Wink, Wink). Maybe best of all, core values allow staff to hold management to account when we wobble off course!
  2. Core values inspire our staff to positive action. They give our staff something to live up to and something to aspire to.
  3. Core values assist us when recruiting staff. We can clearly explain to potential employees what we expect, and we have a yard-stick to assess if they're suitable. We want people who are in alignment with our values.
  4. Core values can help set us apart from other centres. We can use our values to communicate to parents and caregivers the ways in which we are distinctive (see Distinct or Extinct).
  5. Core values will develop by themselves anyway. De facto values will develop based on how our staff see others behaving (including us). Those may not be the values our organisation aspires to have.

In summary, values are an efficient way of managing. They communicate what is important at our place of work (for our caregivers and regulators to see).

How Do We Establish Our Values?

Don’t State the Obvious

Very few people want to do evil (or work for an organisation that does), so does it make sense to have as one of our core values anything that states the obvious or re-affirms the laws of the land?

Those are a given and we’d be just wasting a core value (and as we’ll see below, we should only have a few of them).

Don’t Copy!

Having bland, ‘nice’ ideals for values (perhaps copied from another organisation) may be a tempting shortcut, but if we want our values to mean something to our staff, they need to be authentic. Values need to be about us and our culture (and because our organisation is not like any other, our values will probably be different too).

In its annual report to shareholders, Enron listed as its core values:

  • Communication – We have an obligation to communicate.
  • Respect – We treat others as we would like to be treated.
  • Integrity – We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely.
  • Excellence – We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.

Clearly, just having values is not enough (Enron filed for bankruptcy on December 2, 2001, and subsequently many of its executives were indicted on a variety of fraud charges, and some were later sentenced to prison)!

To be meaningful, values must be authentic and communicated to, and expected of, everyone in the organisation. Empty values statements will just create cynical and dispirited employees and undermine managerial credibility.

Don’t be Negative

We should also try to avoid any value that states what shouldn’t be done (Google dropped the motto “Don’t be evil”, replacing it with “Do the right thing”).

Values should be something to aspire to, not something to avoid.

…when I ask employees and executives alike if they’re inspired by leaders who do not lie, steal, or cheat, the answer is generally no: that’s the bare minimum of what’s expected, but is rarely enough to inspire others to positive action.

What is required are “prescriptions,” the things you should do but would likely not be censured for not doing: donating money, volunteering time, or being friendly and inclusive. - Fast Company

Don’t Aim for Consensus

Values have nothing to do with building agreement.

They are about imposing a set of fundamental beliefs on the people who make up an organisation; beliefs that are so fundamental and so important that we would rather close our centre than break them. (Would we be dishonest if it meant we made a bigger surplus/profit?)

Surveying all staff about what those values should be is unlikely to reach a workable outcome as every individual has both their own personal value system from which they will base their judgements, and varying degrees of commitment to the longevity of the centre.

Values need to come from the top.

The Process

Developing core values takes time, effort and serious reflection. Here is a suggested process to follow:

  • Brainstorm. Form a small group (owner, manager, governance and head staff) to develop a shortlist of around a dozen value statements (there are sources with listings of values in the Links section below).
  • Reflect and refine. Get to no more than four or five value statements (any more and staff will have a hard time believing they are all critical, let alone remembering and applying them). For each value ask the question; “Would we rather close the centre than…?”
  • Rank. This is probably the most important (and most often overlooked) part. Take each possible core value and compare it against the others in turn asking which is the more important. For example, let’s say we are reviewing two values: honesty and child well-being. We ask the question: “Would we be honest if it meant putting child well-being at risk, or would we prefer to tell a lie to preserve child safety?” We don’t need an actual example. The aim is to rank our values in order of importance to us. Ranking our values tells staff the order in which to apply them when using them.
  • Elaborate. For each value, write a short explanatory phrase to add clarification. Take Adidas' core value as an example: Integrity: We are honest, open, ethical, and fair. People trust us to adhere to our word.

Now What Do We Do with Them?

This is where the real work begins!

  • We need to apply our values. We must embed them into all of our systems and processes. We need to recruit and promote staff based on them, and conduct our performance reviews with values to the fore. We need to weave our core values into the very fabric of our centre.
  • We need to talk about our values at every opportunity. It’s been said that employees will not believe a message until they’ve heard it repeated by management seven times! A certain amount of cynicism about values can be anticipated (as with anything new), so we need to reinforce and repeat our values at every chance we get. We need to make staff believers.

A word of warning: there’s a strong argument that poorly implemented values are worse than no values at all. Not living up to what we say we stand for creates a pretty clear pathway to employee distrust and scepticism. Hollow value statements can poison our culture – as it did at Enron.

It can be quite hard to be clear and unapologetic about what our centre stands for, but there’s considerable evidence that strong core values are a key ingredient of successful organisations.

(It is perfectly possible for centres that are part of a larger organisation to have their own site-specific values too, even if head office doesn’t know about them!).

Food for Thought…

  • Core values are an organisation’s fundamental beliefs.
  • Strong core values help us make decisions; they inspire our staff and they set our centre apart.
  • If we don’t consciously develop our values, they will develop on their own (and may not be the ones we want).
  • We can follow a process to formalise our core values.
  • Once we have them, we need to apply our values tirelessly and talk about them at every opportunity.

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2 replies on “What Matters Most”

Love the fact that you have done lots of thinking and reflecting since reading the article. Awesome!
Having good strong values helps in so many ways – I know it does for us.

really enjoyed the thinking and reflection that has happened for us after using the statement “values help us to make decisions. this has even really valuable to discuss in our centre!

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