Making Values Live

I helped to manage the production of a conference in Hull called Making Values Live – featuring the work of Mathew Smerdon and Geraldine Blake from Community Links. At the conference they provided an introduction to their report – Living Values: A report encouraging boldness in the third sector

The value-driven ethos of third-sector organisations is often cited as their distinguishing feature. But is this really the case?

The third sector has no monopoly on ‘values’. But are certain values more prevalent in the third sector than either the public or private sector? I have worked in all three sectors and from this personal experience – I doubt it.

Excellent organisations exist in all sectors. And excellent organisations always have strong values – a consistent set of values that runs through all of their work and helps to recruit, retain, and inspire talented people. The challenge is how to build an excellent passion and vision led organisation – regardless of its legal structure or the sectoral label it attracts.

The conference raised some further interesting questions – perhaps the main one for me being:

Is working explicitly with values worthwhile – or does it lead to hours of navel gazing with little real performance gain?

Can you work directly with something as abstract and ‘slippery’ as values?

How can you make the concepts involved more concrete and action oriented?

The best managers focus on working with behaviours, actions and results. Things that they can directly observe rather than infer. They then give affirmative feedback when these reinforce and express organisational values – or give adjusting feedback when they undermine them. This keeps the process of working with values very practical and action oriented.

In my experience though few managers give regular and rigorous feedback and many of those that do feel uncomfortable referring explicitly to values.

3 Responses

  1. The value-driven ethos of third-sector organisations is often cited as their distinguishing feature. But is this really the case?

    Every person has values – every organisations has values so clearly the third sector cannot possibly have a monopoly on value driven organisations and if that is often cited it does in my view display a fundamental misunderstanding over what values are.

    The Primary challenge I see with values is the relative priority.

    Lets take two simple ones. I value health and I value comfort. I suspect that most people would have those values amongst theirs. However the problem is with the relative importance of them. 50% of women in Hull smoke. For them therefore comfort comes before health. I am overweight – so again I am putting comfort before health. Until I learn how to put health before comfort I will not solve my weight problem and will continue to have weight related health problem that may result in an early death. Until smokers put health before comfort they will continue have smoking related health problems that may result in an early death.

    Another example for organisations is the issue of profit. We all have to value profits or surplus because without them we cannot develop the organisation and risk failure. We also all need to value the welfare of our staff without whom we cannot develop the organisation and risk failure. However most corporates seem to place profit before the welfare of it’s staff. Most third sector seem to place the welfare of its staff before profit. Huge difference in ethos and atmosphere.

    The second challenge is with unwritten values. which often override an organisations spoken values. I have seen this at work often around empowerment. Increasingly organisations claim to empower their staff – they run seminars and training in empowerment – but there are unwritten values preventing it from ever happening. People in hierarchies place a value their position and their job security – so they are afraid to give their power away (empowerment is about giving power away) and impose strict unwritten (or departmental) rules of operation within the hierarchy to maintain positions – this value conflict seems to be a real problem in Hull City Council and I suspect many other public sector organisations. The third sector organisations are not immune from this problem.

    Empowerment demands a huge level of trust – and that is a value I find sadly lacking in almost all organisations – which may in turn stem from the government policy of using fear as the primary motivational tool. Now fear is not a value most organisations would dream of publishing as one of its core values – and yet is is the value upon which most corporates, public sector and religious organisations are founded. Fear is used to drive performance maintain order.

    Third sector organisations seem to be trying to break from this but it is so ingrained into our culture it is difficult to break from it. Were it not for fear we would not need most of our discrimination law. Having just completed two weeks of intensive equalities training I have been stunned at just how easy it is to use fear to manipulate people and how difficult it is to break from the cycle.

    We value freedom but we value security more so we are imprisoned by fear. The only way to break from that prison is to change our values to place freedom ahead of security – that was the decision I had to make in order to be myself and change gender.

    In any debate on values I believe that it is the relative importance of values that has more impact on outcomes that the values themselves.

  2. Thanks for the post Geraldine.
    I think we are pretty close on this one. I try to get managers and leaders to focus on things that they can see or touch. I encourage them to put behaviours and actions at the focus of their management practice and dialogue.
    I then encourage them to provide and seek feedback on how the observed behaviour/action fits with the purpose/mission/values/operational imperatives of the organisation. This dialogue can help to explore actions and behaviours in a very real and grounded context and ensure that future actions and behaviours are better informed through a deeper understanding of values in an operational and practical context.
    However in my experience this is quite a rare dimension in most managers day to day work. It takes training, practice and support to really help it to take root. However in organisations that people join because of the values/mission the ability have this dialogue is critical if you are to successfully retain and develop talented, inspired staff.

  3. Hi Mike
    It’s the fact that so many of us feel uncomfortable referring to values explicitly – yet we talk about being a value driven sector – that prompted us to do this work. That and the fact that we are completing more and more often against different types of organisations to deliver services in our communities and therefore need to be much clearer about why we are different.
    One of the things people really struggled with at the conference was a definition of values. At another workshop we ran, someone summed up values very well I think by saying “my values are the practice of my beliefs in my actions”.
    in our work we have given the following definition :
    values are the beginning – they are the beliefs that inspire us
    values are the means – they inform what we do and how we do it
    values are the end – they are what we are aiming to achieve.
    an example of this :
    We might be inspired by a belief that each and every one of us has the power to do great things.
    This belief would inspire us to want to empower people. If we want to empower people, we need to work in ways that are empowering and that encourage self-help. This is also reflected in what we are trying to achieve – a world where everyone can make decisions about their own lives and participate fully in society.
    I hope that what this does is move us away from the current rash of values statements that are full of abstract nouns e.g. Honest! Passionate! (about what exactly?) and towards an understanding of values as beliefs that are central to both our life and our work and focused on action rather than abstraction.
    Values expressed in this way also fit really well with mission and vision – rather than becoming a separate stand alone statement, our values are inextricably entwined with our existing statements about the work we want to do. This helps to answer another question at last week’s conference – should we turn down work that doesn’t fit with our values? If our values fit well with our mission for the organisation (rather than being a made-up list of nouns) then answering the question about what work we should do becomes much easier. And it’s not just about turning work down but also about deciding what work we need to be developing and delivering in its place.
    The first question that we always ask people is “why do you work here?” Not everyone says “because I want to change the world / make a difference” but lots do – and I’m not sure you’d get so many of the same answers in other sectors. So try asking yourself – why am I working for this organisation? what kind of world do I want to live in? what difference do I hope my work will make? This will help you to talk about your values. And understanding both your own values and your organisational values will help you to use them in practical ways to shape the work you do and the way you do it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: