In life there are always rules. Ways of doing things that have to be adhered to. Life is full of rules, most of them we don’t even notice – habits that we’ve forgotten were habits, routines we’ve followed for so long, cultural norms that are automatic and are now just things we do!
When you’re working with people in an organisation it’s even more clear. There are agreed ways of behaving, unwritten expectations, accepted group behaviours. (Take a look at Culture Truth #1.)
Organisations are exactly the same. They all have a set of built in behaviours that people are expected to follow. A set of core values. An organisation’s core values are the operating principles that guide internal conduct and relationships with customers, partners, and shareholders. Core values define how a company and its people will behave. Whether you’ve articulated them codified them, or they have developed organically over time, your organisation has a set of core values and they are demonstrated by your actions.
Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author, speaker and management consultant, talks about three different types of values in an organisation – core values, permission-to-play values and aspirational values.
Permission-to-play values are the ground floor standard by which everybody is required to abide to be a part of an organisation. They are simply the minimum standard of behaviour expected from an organisation to do business and they are often seen in poorly thought through mission statements in organisations that really have “fluid” values! Character traits like integrity, honesty, respectfulness, great communication, etc. usually provide a smokescreen for an organisation that has no clearly defined purpose. These are simply permission to play values. Values that if you didn’t operate within for the majority of the time, people would stop doing business with you.
Aspirational values are those which an organisation would like to display, but don’t. They describe how an organisation feels they should behave, but not necessarily do at the present time. These are the values that maybe need some work and effort to implement across an organisational culture. They don’t come naturally and perhaps will form part of your vision for the future of the organisation.
Core values are the behaviours which a company would go out of business to protect. The ones you would not compromise on even if it meant the end of your organisation. These are the behaviours that differentiate you from your competitors. These values are foundational to the organisation. They are absolutely non-negotiable, immutable and demonstrated day in, day out throughout the organisation. They are values that customers would use as adjectives if they tried to describe your organisation. They are clear to everyone both inside and out of the organisation, even if they are elusively difficult to articulate succinctly or have yet to be overtly defined.
These are your core values and they are defined by your behaviours, not what’s written in your mission statement (although if you’ve done it right, your behaviour and your defined values match).
To illustrate the point of core values, take this story that Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines told after receiving a letter from a disgruntled customer when one of his flight attendants used humour during the pre-flight safety briefing:
“In the event of a landing on water, we will bring round fresh towels and cocktails!”
When asked about the company’s response, Herb Kelleher said, “most companies would have apologised to the customer, given her some form of gift or compensation and chastised the flight team for their poor and inappropriate behaviour. I didn’t – I sent a short, three-word response to the lady. It said simply,
“We’ll miss you!”
One of Southwest Airlines core values was fun, and it was so central to their organisation that if customers don’t like it, they would be better off choosing a different airline. Herb Kelleher wasn’t prepared to compromise his core values. He’d rather lose a customer.
The thing about the core values of an organisation is that it doesn’t matter what you write down in your mission statement or articulate in your policies and procedures, your core values are only truly defined by the way your people behave. This is culture truth #3.
A culture is only truly defined by
the way people behave and not what people say.
Actions really do speak louder than words. Get it wrong and you risk being inauthentic, which is something customers and suppliers will notice very quickly.
What are your core values? What are the non negotiable behaviours in your organisation?