What are we to do when our efforts to embed the corporate values are failing? Are they compelling enough to inspire an authentic culture? Do they make enough sense on the ground to guide everyday decision-making?

A series of client conversations has got me wondering about the state of organisational values. I really thought that we had matured enough in our understanding of HR, organisational development and leadership to not be stuck in the same old trap of trying to force the issue of prescriptive values. You know, the idea of embedding the values that are listed in our reception hall or found in the Investors page of our website. Sadly, many organisations I speak to are caught in this storyline of trying to force a set of clichéd, abstract and didactic prescriptions of what people should be at work.

A common symptom of the values trap is a leadership that are frustrated at not seeing the values they have chosen being lived in out in the organisation. Staff surveys point towards misalignment. Customer complaints reveal worrying behaviours at the coalface. Our efforts seem to be doing very little in bringing the values to life in ways that are congruent with the nature of values.

If the values are more than a hygiene factor and not merely outward facing statements aimed to impress the market, what are we to do?

From a complexity perspective, values are emergent properties – they are fluid, emergent aspects of the interactions among organisational members. They are always shifting. They are alive. But how are leaders then meant to attend to the values? What is an appropriate way of fostering the mindsets, attitudes, behaviours and interactions that will support organisational effectiveness and health?

Here are some tips from a dialogic organisational development perspective.

Firstly, recognise that the domain of organisational values has all the markers of an adaptive challenge (hat tip Heifetz!). Values are not a technical problem requiring a technical solution. You will not solve the misalignment, but it is a tension you will always need to manage (and have solid ways of tracking the tension).

Secondly, realise that managing values is a misnomer. The form of ‘management’ required is rather an approach that provides a framework within which staff can imagine the values in practice; that positively disrupts the dialogic patterns that undermine preferred values; that enables staff in local settings to make local decisions and that provides a compelling enough image of the values to live out preferred work narratives.

Besides the values being so mind-numbingly boring, what is typically missing is a generative image of what is possible in the future. Generative images provide a different conceptual and metaphoric landscape and therefore change our ideas of what is possible.

We know that the most powerful force for change is a new idea. So, becoming aware of the metaphors we use about our values can, as Bushe & Marshak so eloquently write, “prompt creative leaps into seeing old problems in new ways”. Generative images help disrupt the prevailing ‘reality’ and alter underlying storylines and stimulate the emergence of new possibilities and narratives.

Finally, recognise that what works against you is the scale at which you’re trying to embed the values. Values have to be co-created, negotiated and lived out within local interactional contexts. At the organisational level they are too abstract and didactic to be real enough in the local context. They are made real at local and personal levels.

If you’d like to hear about how we use a narrative approach to engage with organizational values supported by dialogic interactions, MetaphorologyTM and story dashboards, drop Aiden an email.