Values, culture and change
'Our value is the sum of our values.' (Joe Batten)
Values are a representation of who or what matters most to us at the deepest levels. They are often held subconsciously and can have strong emotional attachments. We may discover what our true values are if we encounter a person or situation that clashes with them, triggering a strong reaction. We can also discover our values by looking at who or what we choose freely to spend our time, energy and resources on; that is, without pressure or coercion from elsewhere. Our values guide our instinctive, free personal choices, priorities and behaviours; often without us realising it.
This raises interesting and important questions when we consider how best to introduce or change an organisation’s values. It we seek to superimpose organisational values onto people by presenting, selling, trying to convince etc, it can provoke considerable resistance. The resistance may stem from at least two sources: (a) the imposition conflicts with people’s desire (that is, their underlying value) for e.g. autonomy, and/or (b) the organisation’s chosen values don’t resonate with people’s actual values and are, therefore, met with apathy or superficial assent, and fail to gain traction or buy-in.
We can think of culture in many different ways. At its simplest, behavioural level, we can think of it as ‘the way we do things around here.’ At a deeper level, we can think of it as a pattern of shared beliefs and assumptions that outwork themselves in shared patterns of behaviour in teams, groups or organisations. I heard someone say it is, perhaps, comparable (metaphorically) to what happens when cogs in gearbox (cf people, teams, departments) synchronise with one-another. Culture isn’t simply the property of one cog alone: it’s a property of the operation of the mechanism as a whole.
Except that, in some very important respects, it isn’t. A gearbox can be a highly complex mechanism with multiple, different components engaging with each other in a very sophisticated configuration and sequence. Yet, all things being equal, the gearbox will always operate in the same, fixed and predictable ways according to its design. By contrast, a human person, team, group or organisation is dynamically-complex. This means that the ‘components’ can shift unpredictably in, for instance, energy, behaviour and relationship depending on, say, their beliefs, values, moods or motivations.
So, how then can leaders enable and achieve a shift in values or culture? The first step is to listen very carefully to who or what matters most to people already. This can feel like looking and listening for the implicit subtext behind what people and groups say and do. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to invite people to engage in a process of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). I say ‘invite’ consciously to avoid triggering resistance based on a desire for autonomy (above). An independent facilitator of the process can help convey openness and neutrality; vs something ‘done to’ people by management.
AI has four phases, often done as a 1-day event with everyone involved, working together in teams or mixed groups in the same room at the same time. The first phase invites people in small groups to share stories of real examples of peak experiences at work: ‘When have we been at our best?’ The second focuses on participants’ aspirations for the future: ‘What do we want it to be more like at work, more of the time?’ The third focuses on design: ‘What would need to happen, practically, for that to happen?’ The final phase focuses on commitment: ‘What would we be willing to do?’
The first two phases are designed to surface implicit values. The second two phases are designed to identify desirable cultural traits. Having completed the AI process (above), the facilitator invites people to compare and contrast the values and culture they have surfaced and pointed towards through the AI, with corporate values and desired culture. In my experience, it is unusual for people to object to anything in typical corporate values, even if they pay little attention to them. However, seeing if-how their own personal values correlate with the organisation’s values can engender engagement.
The next step involves working with people to identify critical balancing qualities in the values and desired culture. For instance, imagine a mission statement that includes both (a) customer-focused and (b) respect for employees. An organisation needs to hold both in tension. On the one hand, this could mean it is willing to fulfil customer demands insofar as, in doing so, it upholds its respect for its employees. On the other hand, it will recognise and affirm its employees (and thereby demonstrate respect), insofar as they are customer-focused in their work. A leadership role is to ensure balance.
The next step involves working with people to identify where current behaviour and practice is consistent with the values and desired culture, and where there are gaps or inconsistencies. Where gaps or inconsistencies are identified, leaders can engage with people in conversation about (a) which are most important, (b) what lays behind them, and (c) what it would take to close the gaps or resolve the inconsistencies. Leaders can then focus on recognising and affirming where they see the values and desired culture being outworked in practice, including publicly for positive reinforcement.
The final step involves working with people to explore how to embed the values and desired behaviours in all of the organisation's core people-related dimensions, e.g. recruitment; selection; goal-setting; supervision; appraisal; recognition; reward; promotion; team meetings; inter-departmental working; leadership decision-making; communications; customer/beneficiary engagement; and managing relationships with clients, suppliers etc. Leaders need to model the values and desired culture in how they approach each of these steps (above), and to invite and affirm honest feedback on route.
Curious to discover how I can help you with values and culture change? Get in touch!
11/12/2022 12:02:51 am
Hey Nick. That sounds like a great way to explain and work with values, culture and change. Thanks for sharing.
11/12/2022 12:09:05 am
Hi Dan. Thanks for the encouraging feedback. You're welcome!
11/12/2022 12:05:19 am
Hi Nick. That's the shortest and most comprehensive blog I've read on this topic. I like the way you challenge the idea of comparing human systems with mechanical ones.
11/12/2022 12:11:20 am
Thank you, Leanne. Have you read 'Images of Organisation' by Gareth Morgan (2006)? He has a great way of comparing and contrasting very different ways of viewing and working with organisations. I found that book incredibly insightful and inspiring.
11/12/2022 12:08:15 am
Hi Nick. We tried change values and culture in our company. It didn't work. Senior managers chose values and printed them on poster sheets. They not understand why people not interested in them. Now I know why. Thanks!
11/12/2022 12:17:38 am
Hi Fatima and thanks for sharing from your experience. I, similarly, worked with an organisation that had created core values at top team level, then had spent 2 years trying to 'sell' them to the wider organisation. It was a disaster. The approach they had used had provoked almost universal rejection of the corporate values, even though ironically most people agreed with what they had contained.
11/12/2022 12:24:08 am
Hello Nick. Thanks for so generously sharing your ideas and experiences with us. I will bookmark your website. It looks like a real treasure trove!
11/12/2022 12:28:03 am
Hi Barbara. You're welcome! I'm keen to share anything I've had the privilege to study, learn and experience in the hope that others can benefit from it - especially people in the poorest countries who rarely have access to such resources.
11/12/2022 12:30:25 am
What do you see as the relationship between values, culture and brand, Nick?
11/12/2022 12:34:55 am
Hi Mark. I think that's a really interesting question. At its simplest, we can think of culture as a tangible manifestation of shared values. We can also think of culture as the internal expression of brand; and brand as an external expression of culture. How does that sound?
14/12/2022 04:25:01 pm
"components’ can shift unpredictably in, for instance, energy, behaviour and relationship depending on, say, their beliefs, values, moods or motivations." I disagree, Nick. How people feel doesn't influence the culture. It does influence morale, motivation and engagement.
14/12/2022 04:29:05 pm
Hi Dana and thank you for posing such a stimulating challenge. I agree with you that how people feel influences morale, motivation and engagement.
9/1/2023 04:07:20 am
I greatly appreciate your efforts and have as well witnessed firsthand the positive effects to the officers and staff the time when you introduced to us the phases of AI not too long ago in a tertiary educational organization set up. Kudos to the good work Nick!
11/1/2023 11:57:45 am
Hi Paul and thank you for such affirming feedback. Yes, I really enjoyed working alongside you with university faculty and staff in the Philippines. I have never witnessed AI applied so energetically and creatively by a group! :)
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