All organisations, whether for-profit or for-purpose, have an underlying culture or way-of-being. Usually that culture has grown organically, and as a result, it’s often not articulated as culture. Instead, people experience an unspoken expectation of ‘the way we do things around here’.
For some organisations, ‘the way they do things’ is healthy, respectful and trusting. Team members enjoy coming to work and relationships are honest and transparent. People are comfortable with conflict and can share ideas and feedback openly. Everyone on the team takes responsibility for their personal commitments; they hold each other accountable for action; and they celebrate their wins together. Organisations like this usually have a legacy of strong leadership and a core set of values that have been embedded over time.
If you are part of a workplace like this, then there’s every chance that you don’t fully value the culture that exists. Just like a fish doesn’t realise it’s in water until it gets toxic, often people don’t realise they have a workplace culture, until it goes bad. The problem is, if you’re not intentional about growing and maintaining a healthy workplace culture, toxicity can seep in unchecked—one action and one conversation at a time.
What is a Values-Based Culture?
A values-based culture is an intentional decision to establish a way-of-being around a set of agreed values. In other words, everyone in the organisation agrees on the principles that will determine ‘the way we do things around here’.
That doesn’t mean that all values-based cultures look the same. A healthy workplace culture can be the result of any number of positive values at play. For example, one organisation might value having fun and therefore be intentional about creating a space where work feels light and enjoyable. Another organisation might value determination and persistence and therefore be intentional about creating opportunities that allow people to set and achieve big goals. What’s important is that when the values are clear, the whole team knows what is expected and can be intentional about acting out those values in the workplace.
How do you create a Values-Based Culture?
Creating a values-based culture takes more than pinning a few nice words to the wall. If you want to create a positive culture that stays embedded over time, you need to invest time and effort in getting it right. The following steps will help you create a firm foundation.
Identify Core Values
To start, you need to identify the 4-5 core values that you want the organisation to live by. Ideally, your organisation’s founders will have identified a set of values and worked hard to embed these into the organisation. If this has happened, then your team is likely to be in good shape and simply re-visiting the values and reminding people of their importance may be enough.
However, if your workplace feels more toxic than values-driven, you will need to reset the way you do things by identifying the values you want the organisation to live by. Some organisations leave this exercise to trustees or senior management, and then attempt to communicate those values to the wider team. In my experience, having your whole team shape up the values together is far more impactful. Even the most toxic teams know what they want their workplace to look like, and they also know what kind of behaviour is needed to get there. Facilitating this conversation so that your team sets—and agrees upon—their own values is incredibly powerful.
There are lots of activities you can use to help identify the values that are important to your team and the wider organisation. Which activities you use will depend on various factors including the size of your team, whether they can all meet at the same time, and the current culture that exists. Regardless of what activities you choose, it is important to have a clear process—rather than relying on a bunch of ad-hoc conversations.
Describe the Values in Action
Once your team have identified their core values, it is useful to spend some time describing what those values look like in action. In other words, how would you know if someone was living by the values you have agreed?
For example, if a team agreed that they valued excellence, then you might see that demonstrated by being open to feedback. After all, you can’t be excellent if you’re not open to hearing constructive criticism. Excellence might also show up as a commitment to ongoing training or a decision to only sell high quality products. One value can be demonstrated in lots of different ways, so it is important to describe a range of examples.
Taking time to describe what each value looks like in action is a critical part of the process. If you can’t describe the value as a behaviour, action or decision, then it is difficult to hold anyone accountable for their behaviour not lining up.
Get a Commitment
Talking about values is one thing, but committing to follow through is where it really matters. Once your team have established their core values and spent some time describing those values in action, it is important that each team member makes a commitment to follow through.
Some organisations choose to make this a simple verbal commitment, whereas others write up a team charter and ask each team member to sign. While a team charter may not be legally enforceable, it does require a level of action that most people take seriously. This elevates the conversation to something that is obviously important and not easily dismissed.
When bringing new people onto the team, it is important that these values are shared as part of the induction process. People need to know what is expected of them, before you can hold them accountable for it.
Embed, Embed, Embed
Let’s face it, if you have an unhealthy work environment, it’s not going to change overnight—even if everyone wants it to. Embedding your core values into every aspect of the organisation is key for ensuring long-term change.
You can start with simple things like including your values on every piece of communication—both internally and externally. You can pin up posters, create screen savers and change your Facebook cover. However, for your values to stick, you need to embed them into your everyday practices such as team meetings, performance reviews and team awards. You need to make decisions through a values lens, including decisions around hiring and firing. If you want to embed the agreed values into the organisation, you need to hold people accountable to their commitment and lead by example. You can’t just set and forget.
Creating a values-based culture is an intentional decision that requires commitment and follow through from your leadership team. The good news is if it’s done well, you create a positive workplace environment that allows people to truly thrive. It is possible to create a space where people love their work and the people they work with. What environment will you create?
We can help you and your team create a Team Charter that gets buy-in from everyone. If you need support to help your team work better together, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.