I often get asked the following question by clients: “Should we focus on values or on behaviours when trying to change culture?”
The following real-life story illustrates the difference between the use of values and the use of behaviours. A friend of mine, who is a University lecturer, was recently approached by one of her Master’s students, a student who had come from Asia. The student explained that he was experiencing financial hardship studying overseas, whilst trying to support his family back home. Costs had risen sharply in his home country and he was finding himself in a difficult financial position. My friend, who values fairness, said she couldn’t offer anything more than the financial support the student was already receiving. He went away disappointed, but came back the following week with the same request, which annoyed my friend – she gave him the same response. It was obvious the student could not understand her point of view and he told her, “It’s not fair.”
What happened here? Both the lecturer and the student shared the value of fairness. However, this value expressed itself through opposite behaviours. For the lecturer, being fair meant treating everyone in the same way and not favouring one person over another. She could not give the student more financial support without feeling she was unfair to others. The student, on the other hand, believed that being fair means helping those that need it the most – in this case since he was experiencing more hardship than others, it was only fair that he would get more support.
One value - two entirely opposite behaviours.
Does this mean you should drop values to focus on behaviours? Not quite. Here are some of the reasons for using one or the other.
- Values are an essential part of culture and are needed to describe it at the deepest level – They are part of the BE level, along with feelings and beliefs.
- Values underpin behaviours – It is difficult to change behaviours without going to the BE level.
- Employees are used to discussing values because they have been part of the corporate landscape for many years. In fact, many organisations used to focus solely on values to shape their culture.
- Values are easy to express conceptually in one word.
- Values hierarchy is at the core of how we behave – the most common hierarchies sit behind the main cultural archetypes we use to describe culture at Walking the Talk.
- Behaviours are what makes culture do-able. They translate values into tangible, observable and measurable elements that can be implemented, assessed and improved.
- Because (as my earlier story shows) there can be many, sometimes opposite, behaviours for a single value, working with behaviours can avoid ambiguity.
- One behaviour, on the other hand, can represent several values.
- Behaviours are easy to observe, they are what people do – what we call the DO level. As a consequence, employees can easily self-correct.
- Behaviours make it easy to define standards – this, in turn, makes culture do-able.
So what’s the verdict?
Both values and behaviours play a role in shaping culture. Behaviours are sometimes more tangible – observable and measurable – and make the change more practical and more focused. The trick is to limit the number of behaviours the organisation is trying to shift at any one time. Working on culture is about focus, about finding the one thing that will create the biggest shift in how people behave.
I recommend the following approach:
- Use values as a starting point, along with beliefs and feelings, to describe your desired culture. At Walking the Talk we use hierarchies of values, which constitute six cultural archetypes. Complete this description with the desired behaviours.
- Assess the values that are lived in the organisation – these are not necessarily the values that you can find in glossy brochures or on screen savers. These are the values that people live by every day.
- Include behaviours in the culture assessment to determine what it is people are doing that leads to the current business outcomes.
- Identify which two or three behaviours of the target culture need to shift immediately to make a difference.
- Build a year 1 culture plan based on the key behaviours you want to see changing.