Every employer wants to strengthen employee engagement. But what actually goes into doing it?
Many experts say having a set of values is key — but not everyone agrees. Some argue that unless they’re aligned with the company’s goals or mission, values can just cause confusion. Others say that our entire idea of how company values are developed needs a refresh.
So, all things considered, how important are company values?
Despite the criticism, very. After all, people want to know what drives businesses: It’s estimated that public discourse surrounding business purpose has increased fivefold in the past 20 years, beating out even sustainability.
Here’s a look at what makes values effective and how to articulate them for your employees.
Not All Kinds of Purpose Are Created Equal
When it comes to company values, it turns out that the quality of communications and practical implementation matter more than whether you have a slate of values on the wall.
One Harvard Business Review article studied the effect that corporate values have on business performance and concluded that while many organizations trumpet terms like “innovation,” “respect” and “teamwork,” they’re much less likely exhibit those behaviors in practice. The evidence shows that having values just for show isn’t worth the effort: In the study, simply having a mission, vision, values or a purpose statement did nothing to predict the financial success of any given organization.
Instead, the study revealed that strong company values often come from two types of organizations, namely those driven by workplace community — what the study termed purpose-camaraderie organizations — and those driven by a strong vision of the company’s management and future — known as purpose-clarity organizations. It’s always a good thing to hear employees say that they enjoy coming to the office every day, but in terms of financial success, clarity won out: Businesses that valued setting clear expectations for employees and being transparent about the organization’s direction had better financial success on average.
How to Put Your Values to Work
So how can you create values that will actually make a difference? Effective values should be:
- Memorable. Think quality over quantity here — a lengthy mission statement followed by a laundry list of values will only ensure that everything gets muddled. Instead, pinpoint a few values that your organization really embodies. Employees can’t live the organization’s values if they can’t remember them three months after you’ve introduced them.
- Actionable. At its core, a company mission exists to help employees make decisions that reinforce the company’s purpose. It’s those day-to-day and moment-to-moment decisions that contribute to a strong workplace culture. If one of your company’s values is “excellence and innovation,” how exactly does that translate into action? Do you expect employees to keep participating in educational opportunities? In that case, a value such as “never stop learning” could be more appropriate. Then, instead of leaving your employees to connect those dots, bring the value to life by taking the initiative to make seminars and workshops — and time to take advantage of them — available.
- Rewarded and reinforced. You can’t expect your employees to change themselves overnight just because a new mission statement went around. If respect for others is a core company value but the company’s top salesperson is known for being rude and aggressive, what are you prepared to do to smooth out the inconsistency? Each point in your set of values needs to come equipped with a plan for supporting them. That also means being prepared to reward employees modeling your vision. Those personal stories create champions and ambassadors who can carry your message forward in an authentic way.
Values Success Starts With Clarity
Across any mission, vision and value you choose to symbolize your business, remember that clarity in what your company aims to accomplish comes first. Microsoft’s original vision statement read, “A computer on every desk and in every home.” Simple words — inspired, easy to remember and strong enough to help shape coordinated action across people and functions. Tesla’s vision is “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” TED’s is “Spread ideas.”
Executives are often happy to define a mission and vision at a high level, call it a job well done and end there without thinking about whether what they’ve set down really fits the organization. That may be the easy way to go, but it’s not a path to higher employee engagement. Be thoughtful about what values, mission and purpose you present to the world — they’ll put a stake in the ground and define who you are to your employees, vendors, partners and customers.
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