Are the words on the wall your values?

How can you live your core values? According to values expert Jackie Le Fèvre, internal communicators need to be “active sense makers not just message transmitters” – I couldn’t agree more!

If you attended the Institute of Internal Communication’s annual conference last week you’ll know I spoke about personal branding and how what happens inside is reflected outside.

I talked a lot about values and am delighted to welcome Jackie to the All Things IC blog to share her thoughts.

Jackie @MagmaEffect has been a self-confessed ‘values anorak’ since 2005 and is now the lead Minessence Values Framework practitioner in the UK and chair of the Minessence International Cooperative.

Comms has a special place in Jackie’s heart having been Head of PR for The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust back in the 1990’s. Today her company Magma Effect creates insight for meaning and motivation by working with values based approaches.

Jackie says that while she started out life as a zoologist working in a West African jungle with chimpanzees, things are not so different now and as everything is still a question of how the environment and circumstances in which we find ourselves affect our behaviour.

I’ll hand you over…

Are the words on the wall your values?

You sure?

We see them everywhere. Noble, aspirational, sometimes inspirational statements about what matters most to organisations at their core. Often times they are referred to as ‘Our Values’ and as a customer or employee, supplier or neighbour, shareholder or stakeholder, we are encouraged to believe that every action, attitude, decision and engagement will be infused with this spirit.

So tell me, in your experience, are core values generally lived?

In my experience they are not. In my experience to live core values is much easier said than done and that is probably why there is such a gaping ‘do-say’ gap in the culture of so very many organisations. Take a recent high-profile example: Carillion.

When Carillion was operating a statement of the values it said it prized was prominent on the website. Carillion said: we care, we improve, we deliver, we achieve together. On Wednesday 16 May 2018 the news was full of what Carillion had actually done.

The Guardian reported the “10 most shocking quotes from the report into its failure” where MPs said:

“Even as the company very publicly began to unravel, the board was concerned with increasing and protecting generous bonuses” – we care – hmmm but who for?

“resolutely refused to make adequate contributions to the company’s pension schemes, which he (FD Richard Adams) considered ‘a waste of money’” – very caring….

“Carillion relied on its suppliers to provide materials, services and support across its contract but treated them with contempt” – not a lot like my understanding of we improve, we deliver, we achieve together what do you think?

What has all this got to do with internal communications?

When an organisation states a set of core values these should be the internal framework by which acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is determined.

Core values should be shaping what is done and how those things are done both inside and outside.

Increasingly people want to work for organisations where the experience of being employed matches the picture painted of the work and culture through recruitment. When an organisation trumpets its value of “Innovation” for example and then managers shoot down every novel idea suggested by a new recruit all sorts of negative consequences ensue.

In partnership with KRC Research, Weber Shandwick recently revealed that in a survey of around 2,000 folk from different companies only 19% felt that the employment experience externally promoted matched the internal reality.

Other studies show that in some companies up to one-third of new hires leave voluntarily within the first six months: that’s expensive both in monetary and human cost.

So to my mind the IC crowd can make two really significant and meaningful contributions here.

First: be active sense makers not just message transmitters.

We all have our own individual values through which we filter information to determine what matters to us and if something matters what it means. So when you are telling the internal story of your organisation use the stated core values as architecture to highlight the relevance or noteworthiness of the information.

Keep it all aligned. If your place says it values “collaboration” and you are asked to post an update about a disappointing set of quarterly results look for the examples where some new alliances or cooperative practices were used which, ok didn’t get the results this time but have put us in a better place to go forward this next quarter.

I am not suggesting we hide or massage the truth in any way. I am saying that if the update simply says – poor results, missed the target by X, everyone needs to try harder – then the implicit values in that message are “profit” and “productivity” neither of which lives in the same territory as “collaboration”.

Use the core values to help frame and share meaningful stories to reinforce and underline the desired culture: that will help the employee experience better match the external image.

Second: be valiant champions of the best we can be

You probably know more about how folk on the ground think and feel about things in general than possibly anyone else in the organisation. You can probably see more clearly where/when values are not being honoured.

Back to Carillion for a moment – the MP’s also called out KPMG and others in the audit/scrutiny function for laziness and complicit practice – if any of them had waved Carillion’s values in the faces of the board and said “given these it is not acceptable to do that” maybe all those unpaid subcontractors, employees and local people with unfinished hospitals wouldn’t be suffering the way they are today.

So if you are asked to communicate something that runs counter to the values do challenge. Ask “how does this fit with our values?”

It’s a fair question, the answer to which will equip you to do your job better. Sometimes leaders and managers make poor decisions in the heat of the moment and then get wedded to them when they can’t see an honourable way out. Prompting them to stop for a moment and reflect on the core values creates an opportunity to refine, maybe even revoke, something that would otherwise do damage to relationships and culture. This is especially important if you are asked to work with communicating what is going on at the governance level in your organisation.

Final suggestion. If you know the values aren’t real or meaningful think about whether you would like to initiate and lead a renaissance.

There are all sorts of engaging, accessible ways to involve people across every level and function in conversation about what matters most and what characterises us at our best.

Research published in the European Journal of Management in 2015 found that there are measurable advantages to organisations having and using statements of core values. The closer those values are to the reality of the actual culture of the organisation the better for everyone.

As an IC professional do not doubt the significance of the difference you can make to closing the ‘do-say’ gap.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has”- Margaret Mead.

Post author: Jackie Le Fèvre.

Thank you Jackie.

Further reading on the All Things IC blog about values:

First published on the All Things IC blog 18 May 2018.


  1. Roger Darouni says:

    Great article :Are the words on the wall your values ? it should be an eye opener to lots of Cos on how they abide by their core values. thanks for sharing

  2. […] gap that no one appears to want to tackle. If you would like to read more on that idea try this blog by me for […]

  3. […] Are the words on the wall your values? […]

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