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Podcast: How to communicate your company’s values

What are your company’s values?

Do you have a consistent way of communicating them?

Do they feel like words on the wall rather than lived behaviours?

The 14th episode of the Candid Comms podcast is out now and packed with practical ideas and inspirational advice, to help internal communicators thrive in their role.

Candid Comms podcast cover

It covers:

  • Why values are important
  • Common mistakes I see companies making
  • The mindset we need to have
  • What other companies are doing
  • Top tips and advice you can try today.

You can find the Candid Comms podcast on your favourite player including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Podbean.

Do let me know what you think of this episode and don’t forget to rate, review and follow, so other Comms pros can benefit too.

Resources from this week’s episode

What is the podcast?

The Candid Comms podcast launched in January 2021. It’s weekly show designed to connect internal communication professionals to the latest advice and guidance.

Previous episodes:

Thank you to my Producer Debbie West of Seren Creative. You can listen to Candid Comms via this page or online.

Transcript of this week’s episode

Welcome to the Candid Comms podcast. If you’re looking for practical and inspirational ideas to help you thrive in internal communication, you’re in the right place.

I’m your host, international communication consultant, trainer and mentor Rachel Miller. Through this podcast, I’ll share my experience with you so you can increase your skills, knowledge, and confidence on all things internal communication related.

Hi, it’s Rachel. Welcome to the show. In today’s episode, you and I are focusing on organisational values and you will leave with one thing to know, one thing to do, and one thing to think about. Are you ready? Let’s get started.

Do you have values inside your organisation? And if so, are they words on the wall or lived behaviours? Because there’s a difference.

Imagine right now, you are in a room or on a call with a group of your employees and you turn the conversation to values. If you asked your employees to name your values, could they do that?

I wonder what they would say. I find, and I find this particularly is working as a consultant and running focus groups, when auditing an organisation, if the conversation turns to values and I ask employees, “What are your values?” I normally get all sorts of really great sounding words.

Sometimes I get employees looking at their lanyards because some people have their values of their organisation, literally printed, and they’re hung around the necks of their employees. And they’ll try and have a sneaky peek at what the values say on their lanyards or maybe on their mugs. Other people look around the room. If we’re in a room, they look around the room thinking, “Oh, there must be a poster here with them on.” And that tells me so much, because as an organisation, you need to know what your values are.

Not only that, you need to turn them into action and turn them into lived behaviours.

Internal communication can help drive the culture that we want in our organisations. And one way to do that is through embedding our organisational values. So the very first step in that is knowing them. And it’s not enough just to recite them.

When you talk about mutual respect, for example, if that’s one of your organisational values, what does that actually mean in reality? If your employees know that mutual respect is one of your values, then what do they do differently as a result of knowing that that’s what’s important to the organisation?

When I think about values, I think it’s the DNA of your organisation. If you imagine your organisation like a stick of rock, if I cut through it, I should be to see the values. They should be so entrenched and so embedded inside an organisation. It’s part of what makes you who you are, your DNA, if you’d like.

How do you feel when I say that, does that resonate with you? Or are they just words on a wall? The worst example … there are many examples I could share with you actually!

But the worst example I found of an organisation’s values was when I was called in to help a company. I looked at their newsletter and it was written with the values at the top. So they were, front and centre of this email newsletter that went to all of their employees with email access. And I was looking at all of their channels. I said to the Comms team, tell me about this email newsletter and tell me about these values.

They just looked at me. I said, “But where did they come from? What’s the thinking behind them?”

They said, “Well, they’re not actually our values.” And I said, “Pardon?” I said, “Well, what do you mean they’re not your values?” And they said, “Well, no, they’re the values of…” This was a local council in London. This was another council’s values that they simply lifted and shifted into their email newsletter.

I remember saying to them, “Okay, I’m a bit confused by this. Can you help me understand where else they exist in your organisation?”

The looks on their faces told me, Comms friends, that the emails newsletter was the only place where those values lived. And I was absolutely staggered because in order to move your values from just words on a wall, or nice phrases around a lanyard, or nice words around lanyard into lived behaviours, you need to bring them to life.

They need them to resonate. They need to make sense for your organisation. Simply going on websites, and I’ve blogged a lot at allthingsic.com over the past 12 years about organisational values and why they’re important and how to make sure that an organisation is actually living its values.

The worst thing to do is simply lift and shift some words that you hear at a conference, or you hear from a webinar or see on somebody else’s recruitment site and think, “Oh, they sound good. We’ll have those for us.”

Because the first people to know that they don’t resonate are your employees. So I wonder what’s true for your organisation. If you have organisational values in place, do your employees know them?

For me, when I’m looking at values, I want people to know, understand, and then act. You can’t simply go from knowing something to acting on it. The middle part, the understanding part, is really important. So what we need to know is, what are those values? Do they make sense for our employees?

Can they recite them? Not only can they recite them, but can they then translate them into reality. They understand what it means to work safely. They understand what it means to have mutual respect in our organisation. Then we move into the territory of going, “Okay. So people know it. How do we check for understanding?” That middle bit.

This is something I want you to do. In order to check for understanding, we need to make sure that we’re bringing our values to life. And one of the very best ways of doing that is through storytelling. And I love this. I featured quite a few stories on my blog over the years, including the Ministry of Justice here in the UK, where Sara Vogt, who’s the Deputy director of corporate communications, blogged for me back in 2020 to share how the Ministry of Justice is living its values.

Further reading: How can you help your organisation live its values? – Ministry of Justice article.

One of the ways that they do that is through storytelling. In that article, she wrote for me and said, “Loads of organisations have written down their values. That’s the easy part. But how do you make sure they become your organisation’s moral compass?” Love that. Love that as an expression.

She also used an example there and said, “Think of Enron. It stated values were communication, respect, and integrity and excellence.”

So part of the conversation and the work for us as internal communicators is thinking about what will help you become a truly values led organisation. I wonder whether you say that as a phrase. I hear that quite a lot inside organisations where they talk about it externally and say “We’re led by our values.”

Then internally, if you ask people, “What does that actually means?” The checking for understanding bit. I wonder what the answers would be. I’m curious to know what that would be for your own organisation. So how do we move from know, understand, and act?

The understand bit is about demonstrating day to day what the values mean, bringing them to life. And there’s multiple ways you can do that. I’ve mentioned storytelling. And I love that as an example, because it’s lifting the words on the wall into lived experience, into actions. And what you’re doing when you’re creating and curating stories is you’re gathering your insight and your evidence.

You’re helping employees to understand this is what it looks and feels like to act with a mutual respect or act in a safe way or act with integrity. If not, these words would only ever be words on the wall. They won’t actually be lived behaviours. One of the ways that I like to test this, is to look at an organisation’s values and putting them up on a slide or put them on a flip chart, and ask employees to talk about them and give me their examples of, “Help me understand,” and you’ll notice I use this phrase a lot. I use it a heck of a lot in my work as a consultant… “Help me understand how this happens.”

So I’ll ask employees, “What does integrity mean to you? Help me understand how this shows up for you day-to-day in the work that you do, decisions you make, conversations that you have?”

What I’m looking for is evidence that I can use for storytelling. I’m looking for real, lived examples. Because we know, comms friends, that peer to peer is the most trusted source of truth inside organisations. If you look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, for example, peer to peer, back in 2013, was cited as the most powerful form of communication for all of those reasons. The phrase that was used was “I trust people like me.”

Further reading: How to build trust in organisations – featuring the Edelman Trust Barometer 2013.

Now, if you apply that mindset to your internal communication, it’s super important to think about your values through the lens of your employees. So values are not a Comms thing. They’re not an HR thing. They are a business thing. So the best way to do that, I find, is using examples from employees to help talk about the values. If, when you’re talking about values inside your organisation, you’re always quoting your HR director, or you’re always quoting your Comms director, it doesn’t go deep enough for me.

What resonates for employees is people like you are doing things like this.

This is why our values are important. This is how they show up day to day. This is how they’re impacting the work that we’re doing. And all of that mindset is about creating and fostering a sense of understanding so you can deepen knowledge for your employees. If you go out there and say statements like, “We are a values led organisation,” but then the only time you talk about your values is a tick box exercise in your annual employee survey to check that people know them, it doesn’t go far enough. I’ll give you a word of caution as well. This is something that I’ve seen a fair amount when I’m either auditing an organisation or perhaps looking at award entries. I judge a lot of industry awards every year.

The worst examples for values for me is when it feels like they’ve been shoehorned into an organisation.

Let me tell you what I mean. So imagine you have an email newsletter and you have sections. Which are, perhaps you’ve got five values in an organisation and every section of the newsletter has a value at the top of it. And then you’re trying to fit everything under those headings. Sometimes this can work really, really well.

However, more often than not in my experience, things feel shoehorned in. Where we look at the stories that we’ve got, and we look at the headings, which are our values, and we try to make them fit.

Did that make you wince? I wonder whether that resonates for you. I’m curious. Do you let me know, do tweet me @AllThingsIC to let me know your experience of working with values in reality, through your internal communication channels.

I’m curious to know what you do. The reason I think there’s something to avoid, or perhaps it’s something to be mindful of, is when it feels like we’re shoehorning things in to fit with our values, it tells me we’re not actually living in reality. That we don’t have lots of rich examples to draw on. And also the reason why that’s not a good thing is the quality goes down.

Sometimes values are very similar to each other. So that makes our job a lot harder, Comms friends, because you’re trying to define what they mean. So top tip for you. If your company values only exist in name only, create a strap line or a tagline underneath. This is a one sentence, short, sharp, glanceable content.

So if you have integrity, for example, then underneath, you might say, “There is no gap between what we say and what we do.” Think about that for your own organisation.

Look at the descriptions that you have, and if you don’t have any descriptions in place, then we’re open to misinterpretation. We’re open to all sorts of different interpretations being used by employees and believing they’re doing the right thing.

So help your employees to create that check in for understanding bit, help your employees by being really clear in terms of, “This is what good looks like, aspirationally. These are the values that we have, and this is how we’re trying to live our lives.

In the final part of today’s show, which is focused on organisational values, I’m going to be sharing some things for you to think about. And I promised one, but there’s actually more than one. Because there’s a heck of a lot to think about when focusing on organisational values.

I mentioned the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. I also encourage you to look at the 2019 version. I’ll include links to everything I’ve mentioned in the show notes at allthingsisee.com/podcast.

But in the 2019 barometer, it looks at the fact that communications of your organisation’s values is the second most important topic after societal impact for building staff trust in organisations. If that’s not a reason to focus on them, I don’t know what is then. I will share a link to that trust barometer from 2019 so you can see the details there. Also something for us to be mindful of is, where do our values come from?

Further reading: “My Employer” tops the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2019.

Edelman Trust Barometer 2019

So those words that you might have, were they created by your leaders, locking themselves away for a day? Or maybe an external consultant came in and created the values for you or recommended words to you. Where did those words actually come from? And if you look at them, if you have values in place, are they relevant?

Do they resonate right now for your employees? Do they make sense?

I have a test for you. If you vote down the values of your organisation and maybe two or three competitors, and you covered over the name at the top, could you say which one belongs to you? And the reason for that is because I find values are so generic. Where I could look at values and very often you can’t guess who they belong to.

They’re not unique enough. I mentioned earlier that values should be the DNA of your organisation. Something that is entrenched and runs through your organisation. It makes you who you are. It’s unique to you. It’s your fingerprint if you want to extend the DNA analogy.

However, if you just have generic words and there’s nothing in there that really resonates for your culture, which is the way things done around here, it doesn’t match your aspirations of your business outcomes, then it’s not working hard enough as a set of values.

So look at your organisation’s strategy and thinking about how you work with your senior leaders, for example. How can you make sure that your organisational strategy and your purpose of your organisation, what we’re here to do, whether we’re curing patients, transporting people or selling widgets, how can we make sure that the way that we work and the way that we say, “This is what’s important for us,” behaviourally through our values, are aligned.

Something I want you to think about is looking at the business outcomes of your organisation. Look how, what your senior leaders are focused on, for example. In the ministry of justice article that I mentioned earlier, which I will link to at allthingsic.com/podcast, they did a lot of work there with values and culture, and that they go hand in hand.

Actually looking at values and culture as one of the four pillars of their annual internal communications strategy. So part of their work at the Ministry of Justice has been about creating a values campaign to focus on issues that are important to them as an organisation. And lots of that has been conversations about turning values into reality by aligning them with the culture, the way we do things around here. So are you values unique enough? Or could they be anybody’s?

If you look up your values and feel like these are too generic, or these could be our competitors values, and that’s an exercise that you can do in looking at what your competitors are also saying, what’s missing? If you don’t have organisational values and you’re thinking creates them for the first time, please don’t let your leaders just shut themselves away into a room and come up with some words.

The reason I think it’s important to involve employees is because everybody is responsible for turning these values into action. If it truly is that we’re setting out the store to be this is the way that we need to communicate. This is the DNA of our organisation.

They can’t just exist in the minds and hearts of our leaders. They have to exist in the day to day action of our employees.

One of the ways that organisations do that is to create values champions. And the role of a values champion could be to communicate and create the values to start with or to bring them to life. So if you have values champions in your organisation, are you really clear in terms of what the purpose of their role is?

What are they here to do? Are they here to seek out stories? And this is moving us into the act part of the know, understand, act.

The day-to-day act of communicating stories, the day-to-day acts of spotting opportunities to talk about the values. That’s something that values champions can do. More often than not, I find culture champions, or values champions, sound like a really good thing to do, but more often than not, I find that the intention behind them hasn’t been clearly communicated.

For example, when I joined Visa back in the mid noughties, I remember being told when I joined, “You’re going to be on the Forward Group.” And I said, “Great. What’s that?” I got told by the team around me. “Well, your predecessor was on the forward group and representing comms. So you’re going to go and represent Comms.” I thought, “Okay.” I didn’t know that what it was, and I didn’t know what to expect at all.

I remember going along to the first meeting and as a Comms professional it’s gold dust, because there was a collaborative group, cross functional group from across the organisation coming together to talk about issues that mattered to the organisation to move it forward. Well this is what I surmised, because I couldn’t find out what I was there to do.

No one could tell me. So something to avoid when you’re thinking about working with groups of employees is don’t just co-opt them onto groups. Be it values champions or coach champions or employee forums, whatever it might be, make sure it’s really clear what they’re here to do. And I’ll record a separate episode on working with comms champions and employee champions. But top tip from me to you… In fact, two top tips from me to you is, make sure you’ve listed out what the purpose of that group is.

What is it here to do? If you’re having values champions or culture champions, what does that look like in reality? What are they there to do? And then make sure, I like to recruit to these groups in two different ways.

I like to have those bullet points, four or five bullet points of the role. This is what we’re asking you to sign up for, or this is what we’re encouraging to sign up for. And then the second part of that is to recruit to those roles. I like to make it open to the whole organisation. These aren’t closed groups, or they shouldn’t be closed groups where people will scribble away into a room, or they joined private calls together. If you’re creating an environment for employees to thrive and you’re encouraging people to share their voices, you’re amplifying their voices through being champions for example, then talk about that.

Have you listed your values champions on your intranet, have you named your comms champions? Are they in a visible space where people know that they can talk to them?

When you’re recruiting them, and I like to split this. I like to make it known that we are recruiting a values champions. And this is why listing out those four or five bullet points of that role, this is what we expect from you, and this is what you can expect from us.

But then I also ask line managers to nominate people. And the reason I do both, I do 50/50 of opening out to everybody and asking line managers who they would like to nominate is because, in order to have things like values champions or culture champions or comms champions even, it needs to be a cross-functional group. There’s no point just having Comms and IT champions, representatives from those functions who would just talk about comms and IT, that’s not good enough.

So if you do have that, if you do have values champions in place, have you made it really clear what you expect from them as an organisation? What’s their role? Is it to spot opportunities to talk about the values? Is it creating and curating stories or feeding information through maybe to HR or to the comms team about, this could be a great opportunity to talk about our values, for example.

Sometimes we call them advocates. So you might call your Comms champions or values champions, advocates, and lots of organisations are increasingly looking at how can they harness the passions of their employees so they advocate something? For me, one of the most important thing to do within that is making sure there isn’t an integrity gap between what you say and what you do. So simply asking people to advocate for something when actually it’s a bit broken, doesn’t go far enough for me.

So if you are involving employees, I encourage you to think about how you bring them together to make decisions. Maybe to rewrite the values, maybe to relaunch the values, maybe to create stories, to bring them to life. The list is endless.

The final thing I want to share with you to close our episode together today is to be mindful of your leaders.

If you’re saying that your values are important, it is critical that not only your frontline workers and your employees and your peers are living your values, but your leaders are role modeling them too. There is no point having values and talk about being proud of who we are and having values like integrity or openness or collaboration if their behaviours don’t match up.

You can feel the difference between saying “We are collaborative. My door is always open.” And then actually our leaders are and accessible.

They’re not living the values day to day. When you have those gaps and those disconnects it is so evident. So it’s important that our leaders role model the values and we can hold them up as beacons, as examples. It’s not just about drawing out the stories from our frontline workers and our employees, but it’s from our leaders too.

Think about how you can encourage them to talk about the values day to day, not just when performance time comes around or not just when we’re doing investor relations presentations externally or not just when we’re trying to recruit, but day to day, how can they seed language of values into their conversations and more importantly, into their actions and behaviors?

I hope that was helpful. There was a heck of a lot there.

I hope you found this episode useful. Do let me know how you get on, whether you’re creating your values for the first time, whether as a result of listening to this episode, you think, “We don’t have a strap line. I don’t think it’s clear what exactly we’re trying to communicate through our values. They are just words. I think I need to write a strap line, a descriptive sentence to describe them.” What are you going to do differently as a result of listening to this episode?

Do get in touch, you can Tweet me @AllThingsIC and share your thoughts. You can find me on Instagram @rachelallthingsic. Look me up on LinkedIn at Rachel Miller and do feel free to get in contact via the All Things IC website, allthingsic.com. And as ever, remember, what happens inside is reflected outside. See you again soon.

Further reading about values via the All Things IC blog

What happens inside is reflected outside

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Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on the All Things IC blog 25 April 2021.

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