April 22, 2012

Minding Our Values

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Best Practice tagged , , , , , , at 4:12 am by Sue Hine

It’s always enlightening to bone up on organisation missions and visions.  The office reception or the organisation’s website or letterhead is the place to go.  That’s where I also look out for the values, the words that act as the moral compass to guide the organisation’s operation and practice.

Many NPF organisations claim they are Values-Driven, drawing on their foundation manifesto.  But organisation values are not exclusive to our sector.  Basic manuals on organisation development will include reference to the importance of developing a Mission, Vision and Values.  Corporate businesses and government departments can spend time and a lot of $$ pinning the right words and statements to their mastheads.  The mission describes the intention of an organisation’s design and plan, and the vision defines the desired end-state.  The values express ends and means underpinning both mission and vision.

That is, the abstract words that name our values become real in our behaviour, the way we do business and in our relationships.

One writer* calls values “the DNA of an organisation, the glue that holds culture, leadership and strategy together”.  So even if there are no values identified they will be operating under the radar.  Much better to have them up front.

Many an organisation has failed because it got diverted from its mission and the vision got blurred. But none failed so spectacularly as the energy corporation Enron, in 2001.  Engraved in granite at head office reception, Enron’s values were Communication, Integrity, Respect, and Excellence – decorative words that came to be a false deal in the company’s business practice.

This cautionary tale might be an extreme example, yet is a reminder to pay attention to organisational standards and everyday practices.  And to go about identifying values if not already established – involving all staff and volunteers.

Choosing particular value-words is the fun part. What does this organisation stand for?  What words represent the way we want our mission and vision to be understood?  And more particularly, what words will inform our actions and behaviours?  Yes, but value-words are abstracts that have no substance until we put meaning and actions to them.  And then we have to understand how commitment to a particular value can operate on a continuum: people will put different weights to the meanings, depending on their own beliefs.

Let’s take Respect as an example. A discussion might go something like this:

Q:        Why have we selected this value-word?

A:        Because … we believe in the fundamental dignity of all people; people have rights; we are a people-centred organisation; because it fits with our mission.

Q:        How can we live up to this value?  How can we demonstrate ‘respect’?

A:        We listen, actively; we want to empower others; we answer messages and queries promptly; we can agree to disagree; we accept differences.

Clearly such questions involve extensive discussion of the ‘makes you think’ kind.  Values then become embedded in organisation planning and policies and operations.  Values will be on the agenda in recruitment interviews.  And the pay-off will become evident in organisation culture, staff and volunteer cohesion, and flow on to reputation in the community.

This piece is a very brief introduction to the business of values.  A recent UK survey of NFP organisations will take you a bit further, under the title To Practise what we Preach.  Exactly!


* Henderson, et al. (2006) Leading Through Values: Linking company culture to business strategy.  Auckland: HarperCollins.