Common blindspots and how to overcome them: Marketing values vs. authentic company values
This article is part of an Abilitise series on common blindspots people face in the workplace and how to address them.
How many times have you heard a company claim to be innovative or have integrity? We tend to hear the same company values crop up time and time again - and yet many of these companies aren’t actually applying these values.
Take innovation for example. For a company to be truly innovative it has to embrace its people testing out new things. Some things may work, others will not. The key is that people in the organisation aren’t afraid to make a mistake, as there won’t be repercussions for not getting it right the first time. How many companies do you know where making mistakes is not just accepted, but encouraged? I expect it's not nearly as many as the number of companies which claim to be innovative.
On the integrity front, there are countless examples of companies acting without integrity on a small or large scale - whether that be not paying suppliers, all the way through to fraud. Even the smallest example of dishonesty or unethical behaviour cancels out claims that the company has integrity.
What are the implications of inauthentic company values?
When a company’s values conflict with its actual culture and behaviours it can create serious problems with the company’s employees and customers.
People may be drawn to join the company based on its values, only to discover that the working environment is very different. They will feel disenfranchised, will be disengaged and will eventually move on. This is particularly true of Generation Z who want to work for organisations where they feel they can make a difference . In the context of labour shortages and the “Great Resignation”, companies can’t afford to lose good talent.
When a customer realises that a company’s values are inauthentic they won’t stick around either. They may even share their view on it with others, creating serious damage to the brand.
So, why is there a mismatch between what companies say they are, versus how they actually are?
Company values might be little more than marketing spiel
Companies often become unstuck when it comes to establishing and enacting company values when they predominantly view the process as a marketing exercise.
Values are chosen based on what the company thinks the customer or employee wants to hear, rather than as a true reflection of the culture and behaviours. The company will identify some values which sound great, put them on the website and in their marketing material. And that’s about it.
It’s unlikely that these values will represent the true company culture. Instead there will be a conflict between the values and the actual behaviours. A useful way of viewing this conflict is via the theory of Unwritten Ground Rules (UGRs). First coined by Steve Simpson, UGRs refer to the behaviours, both good and bad, which reflect “the way we do things around here”. These accepted behaviours in an organisation are rarely documented but have emerged organically. UGRs dictate the company culture. For example, a company may say it wants to be entrepreneurial in its outlook, but any time someone takes initiative and tries something new they are shut down. That means the UGR is to not question things and maintain the status quo.
Company values might not be adopted or applied
If actions aren’t taken to ensure that behaviours are in line with company values, then the values will quickly become inauthentic. To live by values, means translating them into action.
For example, if one of your organisation’s values is quality, how will you ensure people remain accountable to that value? Telling people to deliver high quality work means nothing if there isn’t an actual guideline on how to do it. In this case, having stringent quality assurance methods which all staff must meet is one way. Setting targets around minimising errors or establishing review processes to maintain defined quality standards are other ways. Values require clear structures around them to ensure they are applied.
So, what can companies do to adopt and embed authentic values?
Align to the desired strategic direction and culture
Company values should be in line with both the culture of an organisation as well as its strategic goals. They can be aspirational, so long as they are well defined and strategic, not just marketing spiel.
For example, a company may determine that they are or want to be agile. This may be connected to their strategic goals which may require them to pivot quickly in a competitive market as well as serve to attract entrepreneurial and high energy people to the company.
Define and understand values
Values don’t mean much unless they’re translated into action. To do this everyone in the organisation needs to understand the tangible ways the values can be put into practice and then be supported by the organisation to take that action.
The competencies and expected behaviours should be well defined, reasonably standardised, evenly applied and well communicated. Essentially what this means is that everyone knows how to behave to align with the values and is held accountable to that behaviour. Figure 1 shows some of the elements that need to be in alignment to apply company values.
Figure 1 - A model for applying company values
Another piece of the puzzle is to remove the elements which are a barrier to the application of the values. For example, if there are unrealistic sales targets, it may incentivise your salespeople to sign up customers at all costs. That may threaten certain company values such as customer-focus or honesty.
Communicate and demonstrate values frequently and consistently
Discussing your company values with your team regularly is crucial so that they know them, recognise they are a priority and understand how to apply them. Every person needs to understand their role in a values-led culture. How the values are communicated should be personalised to each employee to ensure they have meaning and are relevant to the individual.
It’s also important that leaders ‘walk the talk’ when it comes to practicing the values in order to successfully embed the values into the organisation. Not only will this demonstrate to the team how to practice the values, it will reinforce that the values are a priority.
The company values and how your people are applying them should be discussed in one-on-ones and performance appraisals. This is an opportunity to identify skills gaps for applying the values which can be closed through training. When your people demonstrate behaviours which reflect the values, they should be recognised and celebrated as part of rewards and recognition programs.
Abilitise can help you establish and apply authentic company values in your business. Get in touch today!