Why don’t organizations behave according to their values? Based on our insight and experience, values are made real by making them visible, articulating, interpreting, simulating them, and integrating them into processes that affect everyone. These same steps, by the way, also apply to making your organization’s purpose a reality.

From talk to action

Organizational values are talked a lot, in good and bad. On the one hand, the efforts of organizations to define, or redefine, their values and to become more strongly guided by them signal that values and culture are a force that can make desirable things happen, for example by attracting and helping the company to retain the best talent. On the other hand, and despite the importance of values, we face ethical scandals as organizations misbehave. To avoid misbehavior and scandals, how can we create conditions in organizations to successfully act in accordance with values?

1. Make the values visible: are values visible on your coffee mug?

At the very least, and as the first step, values must be shown. Concretely, that is, especially when the value base has been redefined. Values should be displayed where they can be seen, heard and considered, for instance on coffee cups, culture handbooks, posters, development discussion frameworks, in project feedback discussions, and so on. It may sound like a cliché, but the saying “out of sight, out of mind” is something to avoid here. A coffee mug presenting the values does not necessarily transform values into action, but at least it makes them familiar.

2. Articulate values to transform them into behaviour and actions: do you know what is expected of you?

For values to guide individual and group behavior and actions, they must be articulated as behavior and action. In essence, values are the behavioral guide. If values cannot be clearly articulated as the desired and expected behaviour and action, how could anyone reasonably expect others to know how to act in unison? At best, each phrase that expresses values creates the basis for reflection, and each person can mirror their own behaviour and action against them.

3. Interpret values individually and together: are you genuinely familiar with your personally held values?

Values are not rules: no matter how well they are articulated, there is always room for interpretation. And that is actually a good thing. Often, values may be highly universal, for example, accountability, and in addition to organization’s own articulation of values it must interpret what those values mean to the individual, to teams, and to the whole work community. At its best, mirroring shared values against personally held values, both individually and together, will lead to a new level of collegial relationships through deep discussions. When did you last discuss your own values, other people’s values, or shared values with your colleagues?

4. Simulate values-in-action: have you already tried gamification?

It is possible to practice values-in-action by creating simulations and “play” those simulations – that is, by constructing and examining various alternatives for value-based behavior and actions in different kinds of situations. Simulations through gamification can be instructive, adventurous, addictive, and even fun. Also, simulations provide a safe surrounding to explore, discuss, and realize what value-based action really is together with colleagues.

5. Bring values to all processes that have to do with people: for example, are people paid and rewarded based on values?

All of the aforementioned steps – make visible, articulate, interpret, and simulate – are aimed at fostering increased awareness, understanding, and commitment to values. These steps are important for being able to act in accordance with values, but it is after the implementation of this fifth step that it will be seen whether values remain just words, words, words, or whether they are truly brought to life. Above all, values must be brought into all people-related processes: values should be the basis for how people are recruited, promoted, rewarded, and lead.

Acting in accordance with values is supported with leading by example as well as by giving constructive feedback. Behaviour that clashes with values, on the other hand, must be tackled. Tackling such actions signals caring, and every member of the organization must have a mandate to intervene to actions and behaviour not in accordance with values.

Behavioural change is always a long process and requires a variety of methods to support it. By displaying, articulating, interpreting, and simulating values, and making them part of all processes that affect people, different ways of learning and assimilating information are fostered, making it easier to successfully put values into action in day-to-day life. How have you succeeded in making your organization’s values a reality?