When we’re able to recognise our own values, then we can make decisions that honour them, and this can have a profound effect on how we feel.
Identifying and defining our personal values is a hugely worthwhile process which involves stripping away others’ expectations, and recognising what is truly important to us. In essence, it’s about understanding ourselves better and recognising our sense of purpose, which is a vital step towards achieving genuine happiness. Sometimes, it can be tempting to mould ourselves to display the values that others expect of us – whether this is in the workplace or even in our own personal relationships. We may not even consciously realise we are doing this, but we can find ourselves swept along in the movement around us, yet never feel truly fulfilled. Instead, when we learn to act authentically by staying loyal to the things that are important to us, then we can appreciate the real positive power of values.
Values play a vital role in creating healthy and productive workplaces. In fact, the values held by an organisation are one of the biggest forces in the development of its culture and play a key role in determining the type of talent the organisation attracts. Recent research suggests that we are now prioritising working somewhere that shares the same values as us over and above pay and benefits. This is because when there is alignment between our personal values and the wider team/organisational values, then we are more likely to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from the work we do. This, in turn makes us happier and more fulfilled, and leads to greater levels of commitment to the organisation.
So, what do we mean by ‘alignment’ of individual values? Let’s take an example of an individual who personally holds strong family values – it is likely that they will feel more satisfied in a work environment that values work-life balance, compared to a workplace that expects their employees to work long hours and be available out of hours. This is because they will feel that the organisation recognises the importance of employees thriving in their personal lives as well as their work life; in other words, the things that are important to the individual and the organisation are aligned. This type of value alignment helps us to feel a stronger connection to the people we work with by helping to get everyone on the same page, making us happier and more engaged, which ultimately leads to better performance. On the other hand, being part of a workplace that expects us to regularly act in a way that is not aligned to our values can result in inner conflict and stress. Over time this is likely to have a detrimental effect on our performance and health.
High performing teams tend to have high alignment of individual purpose and values.
Alignment of individual values is not enough to support effective team working; there needs to be alignment of collective values. Just because a team has individuals who hold similar personal values doesn’t mean they will automatically be aligned to the more collective team/organisational values. Organisations can aim to promote alignment by recruiting people who they believe adopt the organisation or team’s values, but, often, work needs to be done to really get ‘buy in’ to these values. Today, many organisations and teams create a values framework to support this. Ideally, employees should be involved in identifying the values for this framework by thinking about the things that really resonate with them in their day-to-day practice. It’s important that the values that are identified are actionable; employees must be able to answer questions about whether they acted in accordance with the values in any given situation. To help with this, it can be useful to map out the specific behaviours that would be expected of someone demonstrating a particular value. For example, if an organisation values ‘learning’, then they might expect staff to regularly reflect on their work, admit to mistakes, share knowledge to help with the development of new skills, seek and act upon feedback and actively ask for support or advice when needed. By identifying the specific behaviours, it helps to provide employees with greater detail about what is expected of them and what they can be held accountable for.
Once the framework has been established, it’s important that it is incorporated into daily working life – values shouldn’t just be a series of words that are put in an employee handbook and left to gather dust! Organisations need to reward and celebrate behaviours that are aligned to their values, and to share examples of good practice to help others to understand how they can apply the values through their own actions. Equally, organisations must challenge behaviour that fails to demonstrate their values. Ongoing and transparent communication is key to maintaining alignment on values and to help them become the bread and butter of how people behave within the organisation.
It’s also important to note that although values tend to stay stable for relatively long periods of time, they are not immune to change. At a personal level, the things that an individual values in their youth may differ to the things that are important to them later in life. Similarly, the values of a team or organisation can also shift as the organisation evolves; what was seen to be important at the start may not accurately represent the organisation now, and so it is important to reflect and refresh values from time to time.
Alignment of values is needed at both the personal (individual) level, but also collectively within the team/organisation. If a team only has alignment of collective values, then chances are that people will successfully work together in the short-term, but this is unlikely to be maintained over time – the relationships tend to be transactional and lack the strong bond that unites people in a more sustainable way. Similarly, if there is strong alignment on individual values and purpose but low alignment at the collective level, then this leads to more ad-hoc collaboration, leading to sub-optimal team/organisational performance. Where there is no alignment at the individual and collective level, we tend to see suspicion and conflict arise. It is only when individual and collective values are aligned that true collaboration occurs.