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Perceptions · 2 April '20

How to define and use core company values to build culture and enhance performance

Trust. Integrity. Teamwork. You’ll have seen similar lofty words hanging the walls of many workspaces or adorning the ‘about us’ sections of websites. Sadly, in many situations, these supposedly integral ‘values’ will come across to people both inside and outside an organisation as marketing ploys. This is because it’s often too easy to fall into the trap of just choosing a set of slogans that sound good, but that can’t actually contribute to changing behaviours inside the company.

When you’re running an early-stage startup or other small business, it is all too easy to assume that this is a discussion that can be saved for further on down the line. But putting it off only means that you will lose out from having clear and actionable values.

Another fear is that it is a complicated and time-consuming process that will limit a company’s flexibility in the future. That’s not the case. Values, like businesses, can and will change: they are not etched in stone. A company’s values only need to apply for the foreseeable future and for the organisation as it operates today.

What are company values?

They are a set of core behaviours that allow for alignment between employees. If you are looking to grow your business and lead your team in a coherent way, they are a key conceptual building block of that strategy. That is because, on an organisational level they:

  • Guide decision-making inside the business
  • Impact behaviour in the organisation by setting clear expectations
  • Help you hire the right people

How to choose company values

Instead of seeing them as those flashy slogans that can fit on the back of a business card or company motto, it’s often more useful to see a company’s values as a set of behaviours. If you imagine your business as a person, then the values are the traits embodied by that person.

This line of thinking helps you to see values as concepts that allow individuals to do certain things. They have to be useful in order to guide decision-making, set expectations and assist in the hiring process. They also have to be actionable. Some business strategists even suggest seeing values as principles that could cost you. For example, if you set out to be your employee’s best friend, you shouldn’t expect to get away with a major round of layoffs! You have to live up to the standards you set if you want your employees to do the same.

When you set about choosing your company’s values, take the process seriously. Talk to customers, investors and other important figures in your life. Run the proposed ideas by them, see if they stick. Most crucially, when drafting the core values of your business, make sure you get your whole team involved. Your colleagues and employees are much more likely to adopt and live by a set of behaviours that they themselves helped design. There’s no motivator like a sense of ownership.

Each organisation can and should have completely different values. Just like your business strategy or company culture, these should reflect who and where you are. Once instantiated, ensure you review them regularly. At CharlieHR, the company values are reviewed every 3 to 6 months. This is because it is important to routinely check up on whether they are working, As the business and its employees change, the values and behaviours will reflect those shifts.

How to use company values

Once you have chosen the values of your company, you need to make sure that they are clearly communicated. You can’t just have lofty words like ‘honesty’ ‘resourcefulness’ and ‘integrity’ floating around without any explanation. When they are first introduced, build out a deck where each value is accompanied by a description that spells out how that value will contribute to the business and to employees’ workflows.

The process of selecting those values is only the very tip of the iceberg. In order to be effective, they have to be lived up to. Your company’s core values or behaviours should flow into all aspects of what you do as a business. You mustn’t just frame them on a wall and then forget about them.

Here are a few ideas to ensure that company values allow for that all-important alignment between employees:

  • Draft interview questions that relate to your values and actively screen for them. Think about how each potential candidate relates to them.
  • During one on ones with employees, regularly ask questions about how they relate to the company values. Are they living up to them?
  • Make them part of employee’s personal development plans. The values of a company become actionable ideas about how individuals can improve their behaviour in the workspace.
  • Embed these values in training agreements that signal not just a strong commitment to employee growth, but to the values you’ve worked hard to define
  • Company values should be used to assist with decision making. If a crucial choice doesn’t reflect any of the company’s key behaviours, then why are you making it? When giving employees feedback, either negative or positive, frame the feedback in terms of how the employee is successfully (or otherwise) embodying those values.