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Organisational Values and Why they Matter

When I was really (really!) young and got my first job (in 2004), I had no idea what organisational values were. Actually, in my first role as an broadcast assistant for a Romanian radio station, the values that guided me were simple: be on time, do your job right, don’t make mistakes and learn fast. So organisational values were actually personal values. 

Once I moved into the IT world, working for an international company, things started to get a little more complex. In our customer support team, there were talks about values that we are looking for in the people we work with, about how to bring the right people on board or how to work together better by all adhering to the same principles and having the same work ethic. Organisational values were basically team values. I even remember that my welcome email included the following:The most important rule is the rule of common sense. -> common sense

1. Whatever you need, you ask for and your colleagues will help you. -> helpful

2. Whatever problem you encounter, you communicate it. -> communicative

3. If you have an idea, you share it and – if possible – we will make it happen. -> resourceful

4. Anything else you think you can handle, you let us know. -> proactive

It was probably my first encounter with having values inside a team and – although at that moment I did not realise it – these values guided me throughout my entire time within the company. Things moved fast from there on and I found myself 10 years later, working for the same company, leading the exercise in which we were defining the company values. I had come full circle. 

A lot has changed since, but the importance of organisational values only grew stronger. Fate should have it that I am leading the same values exercise in Pluria right now – but with a lot more experience – and so this topic is really close to my heart. And here are the reasons why I think having these values from the start matter. 

It’s about your behaviour, it’s not about you

This is a hard lesson to learn, especially if you are Eastern European (like me). We have been raised with the narrative that we are our behaviour and that if we do something bad, we are bad and if we do something good, we are good and there are no grey areas in which you could be just a child, learning, making mistakes, acting both good and bad, basically… being human. 

I feel like this mindset can be easily changed for such cultures, when we introduce values and explain to people how these may reflect in your behaviour, but not necessarily define you as a person. The values we share as a group aim to address all those nuances and doubts that we bring with us from our childhood or our national culture. By clearly stating what are the things that we all appreciate, we focus on what behaviours and actions we want to encourage and help reframe some of the biases and prejudices around them that we grew up with. 

Speaking up, being bold, failing fast, experimenting or learning from mistakes are all great ways of encouraging people to unlearn what they were taught in their school years and how these actions might have sounded disrespectful or wrong to their parents and teachers, but are perfectly acceptable, even celebrated in a professional environment.

Breaking some of the (invisible) barriers

Depending on where your company is born, you can use a values exercise to address some of the issues that you anticipate you might be having with national culture. The Culture Map is a great resource for understanding how the people in your company might react to criticism, like to communicate or make decisions. So if you anticipate you might be having issues making fast decisions because everybody wants to come to an agreement before anything is done, having FAST as a value might be a great way to tackle that. 

For example, being BOLD is not something that is appreciated in a lot of countries. Having the courage to speak up, stand up for yourself, try new things or challenge your superiors is received with a lot of scepticism and pushback. Introducing this as a company value can be a great way of showing the team that you are looking to build a company where people feel safe to act like this, without being apprehended about it. 

The flip-side of this is that if your team is already pretty bold, you might need to explain to them what behaviours that might look bold, but are actually inconsiderate and are not accepted inside the company. The reality is that if you do not explain these behaviours to people, they will act to the best of their ability to embody the values and sometimes, they might cross a line. So to break these barriers, you need to be as clear and as honest as possible about what works and what does not. And give people time to practice and adjust. 

A sense of belonging

Of course, one of the main reasons why values matter is because they give us a sense of belonging. It is one of our most basic needs – as humans – to belong to a group. I am convinced that a business can function without mission, vision or values, but would never thrive or have great success. At least not in these times. I have been part of all types of companies from startups to corporations and I could clearly see the difference between having these, even if they were informal, and not having them at all. 

Still, our sense of belonging is not just about some words we’ve seen on our company’s website or were asked to remember on day one of onboarding, it’s more than that. Usually, when we have our company values clear from the beginning, all of the recruitment, promotions or changes inside the teams are done based on that. So the sense of belonging is built step by step, because people can see and feel that the values they appreciate and they were attracted to are actually embodied by everybody in the company. 

Setting the direction and the pace

One of the most important aspects of business life is strategy. However, there is a saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast, meaning no matter how well-designed your strategic plan is, it will fall flat unless your team shares the appropriate culture. So I feel that having a vision, a mission and values addresses both these major components of a company’s success. The first two define generic aspects of your strategy, but the third one clarifies in what ways and through what behaviours you will get there. 

For example, in a technological company, having INNOVATION as a core value sets a different pace than if you choose SAFETY. Both can co-exist, of course, but the speed with which innovation is done is very different when it is coupled with a value such as keeping customers safe.  

That one value that steals the show

Sometimes, one of the values might be the one that has the most impact on people. One of the values that really took me by surprise in one of my previous roles was HUMBLE. Normally, the values that companies choose are related to doing your best work, succeeding as a team or offering a great customer experience. But this was such a basic human quality and seemed so contradictory to the company’s mission and some of the other values it had. Whilst my desire to be and act with humbleness was so strong, I was having a hard time understanding how to do so without appearing submissive or unassertive or even worse, displaying behaviours that seemed to be the opposite of what being humble means. 

I can definitely say that this was one of the most complicated journeys of discovery for me. I had to learn how to best embody a value in a way that is both representative of my personality, but also of what the company was aiming to achieve and became wiser in the process. And even if Merriam-Webster’s definition of HUMBLE is still a little far from my interpretation, I managed to find my own way of being humble: by listening to others and making sure they feel heard, by being curious and never thinking I have the best answers and by always offering sincere apologies and admitting quickly when I was wrong, no matter how painful that might have been. 

Cultures are local, but values are universal

Finally, I think the best contribution that values bring to a company culture is that you manage to create your own culture inside your team, that will tower over everything you do. We all come from such different backgrounds and cultures, that it is almost impossible to create a perfectly functioning team by just giving people something to do. I feel that when we choose our values and officially share them with the team and state their importance, we give everybody the tools they need to communicate better, resolve conflict or figure out solutions. 

If we want to have autonomous, responsible and proactive people, we need to set up the context in which they will make their decisions and give them the tools they need in order to make them fast and not worry whether their choices, style or personality are liked or not. Values allow us to be authentically ourselves, while at the same time co-existing, working and even succeeding with a group that, even if diverse, will still understand our behaviour. 

I guess what I am trying to say is values are crucial to building a great company. If you are a founder, an executive or working in human resources, I strongly recommend that you go through this exercise and immerse yourself fully in it. I can guarantee that when you do it, you will also discover what are the anti-values that you never want to promote inside the company and sometimes that is just as powerful as finding your values. I would say that we should all probably share both sides of the story with the team: what we want and what we don’t want our company to stand for, because both are just as important. 

And while it may not be immediately obvious, having your values clear from the beginning will make your life so much easier. It will give you the clarity you need to overcome obstacles, make hard decisions or have the patience to implement them whilst everyone else might be questioning your ways of thinking. And making things easier in such a complicated and competitive world is a value that we should all embrace.