Live Your Organizational Values – Practical First Steps

“Purpose” is the flavour of the month. It’s all over the business press: everyone has a story about their purpose, and acknowledges the importance of purpose and values in managing their organizations, attracting talent, and developing brands.

Organizations in the finance, health and social sectors, where achieving business and social impacts are implicitly part of the job, are looking for management systems that are more than just variations on metrics- and targets- based strategic planning, or other Triple Bottom Line variants—an approach that can properly account for purpose and values.

It has been hard to find management frameworks that explain specific and practical first steps for becoming a truly “values-led organization”—until now. You can skip ahead to the framework described in the last one-third of this post, but first a valuable review of how exactly values and stories connect to management decision-making.

Current management approaches fall short

Dealing with values involves thinking about our internal emotional and mental processes, which can be personal and subjective. For the purpose of good management, understanding values (what they are, and how we use them) helps us see what goes into good judgment and decision-making in the workplace.

Values help us develop good judgment and decision-making in the workplace.

John Elkington, who coined the term “Triple Bottom Line” 25 years ago, argues that tracking and reporting data on People, Planet, Profit is not genuinely helping us at a global level in the ways we hoped it might. “Fundamentally”, he says in HBR, “we have a hard-wired cultural problem in business, finance and markets.” On, Elkington suggests how we can address “the culture problem” and restore some hope of achieving broad systemic change:

“If we really want to change the system, we must help individuals operating within it to reconnect with their core values, renewing their sense of purpose, meaning and integrity.”

Leaders responsible for culture and values should first ask, “What ARE values anyway?” and “What does it mean to ‘reconnect with your core values’ at more than a personal level?” How do you enact this in a coherent way, for example, with a thousand employees in fifty locations? Certainly, it’s not going to happen by giving a motivational talk and putting “Quality, Integrity, and Customer Service” in big letters on the wall, or by starting a drum circle and hoping for the best.

Values are not “fluffy”

Some managers expect work on values to be “touchy-feely”—but they are wrong, and dismissive at their own peril. The academic study of human values is very “not fluffy”; it’s a well-established research stream that bridges the fields of psychology, cognition, philosophy and political science, with a substantial body of data behind it. Meg Rohan’s work on The Values Construct shows how human value systems are remarkably consistent—it’s almost like a “periodic table” of values—and that consistent sets of values appear in different configurations across time periods and cultures.

The academic study of values bridges fields as diverse as psychology, cognition, and philosophy.

Making value judgments is one of the most basic of human cognitive activities. We do it more or less constantly—and often unconsciously, like breathing—updating our value judgments as we encounter new situations and decisions. Our value judgements are the building blocks of how we make sense and meaning out of the world around us.

Our values guide the decisions and rules that guide our personal, organizational, social and cultural behaviour. They are the source code for the ‘rules of the game.’ Values are abstract, but their effects are very real and not fluffy at all.

Understanding: from values to stories

So… why can’t we just put “Quality” on the wall in big letters, and call it a day? Because that’s not how values actually work in our brains. As a cognitive process, we understand values not through their technical definitions, but through our stories about ourselves, our work, and our world. Values are intimately connected to storytelling. Rohan writes that “Values are stable, meaning-producing cognitive structures… the ‘value system’ may provide the basic architecture of what has been referred to as the ‘narrative mode’ of human understanding.”

Our stories help us organize our thoughts and experiences, and also the world around us. As managers in the finance, health and social sectors, you organize things—people, money, resources, and time—in service of a purpose greater than just making money. Your work is about real people, and making an emotional connection with them is essential to successful management, especially when “purpose” is concerned. Marshall Ganz teaches organizers how to organize effectively:

“The role of narrative is based on the fact that we come to know the world in two ways: with the head, and with the heart. We map the world of ‘what is’ cognitively, but we map the value we place on things, people and experience emotionally. Emotion has its own language, as cognition does.

Narrative is one of the ways we’ve learned to access emotion, as a pathway to action. Our task is to take what we know implicitly, and make it explicit, so we can bring, craft, intentionality, and purpose to our work.”

The people around you are full of stories—everyone has stories about the time they went the extra mile, the time they did the right thing, the time they learned something the hard way…. These stories (the ‘official’ stories, and the ‘unofficial’ ones passed as rumours) are the stuff of legend in some workplaces, and play a major role in shaping culture and behaviour. The organic nature of a hundred thousand parallel conversations makes it seem complicated to connect values and stories to an ordered, structured, and measurable approach to achieving social and business impact—but it doesn’t have to be.

Practical implementation: from stories to principles

If you want “being values-led” to translate into an attractive work environment, and effectiveness in carrying out our mission and purpose, it is important to:

Step 1: Clarify what your organization’s values are and define them.

This can be accomplished by conducting surveys, hosting group discussions, or simply by having founders state the values and their preferred definitions directly—whatever is appropriate according to your organization’s values around consultation and participation in leadership and direction-setting. Put some work into definitions for each value—using the dictionary is not just OK, it’s encouraged, as it will help everyone understand what you mean by, for example, “Integrity.”

Step 2: Help people see themselves as part of a meaningful story.

Collecting and writing stories that illustrate your purpose and values in action can be artfully done, and is a service offered by many communications consultants, including Junxion. Our approach at this step is to collect, through interviews, surveys, or workshops, people’s stories of when they felt they were living a particular value “at its best.” This gives us a baseline for what the value really means in the context of the workplace, and in interactions with key stakeholders.

Step 3: Describe guiding principles related to those values, and stories that empower people to make good decisions and judgment calls in support of your mission and goals.

To get the full value of your stories, the calls to action that are implicit in them must be made clear and explicit. After participating in Michael Quinn Patton’s Evaluation Masterclass, Junxion developed an approach based on his work on Principles-Focused Evaluation that can neatly integrate your stories and values with your overall organizational strategy and management approach.

Working from the value definitions and collected stories, we work with senior leaders to craft a clear set of guiding “effectiveness principles” for the organization, using the GUIDE framework (see inset below). Once they are polished and accepted, we develop an internal plan to roll them out as part of both day-to-day management, and onboarding training for new hires.

An effectiveness principle guides your people on how to act to achieve the impact goals you have set out for the organization. This is different than a plan with clearly defined instructions and/or steps to follow. Principles are not ‘rules’ (i.e. “add a ¼ teaspoon of salt”); principles give direction but they have to be interpreted in context (i.e. “season to taste”).

What are effectiveness principles?

“People like rules because they eliminate judgment. But we need judgment more than ever” – Michael Quinn Patton

A good effectiveness principle should meet the five criteria of the “GUIDE” framework:

Guiding – Imperative: “do this.” Advice and guidance on what to do, how to think, what to value, and how to act, to be effective. Distinct enough to be distinguished from contrary or alternative guidance.

Useful – Useful to inform choices and decisions: actionable, interpretable, feasible, points the way to desired results. That’s useful advice: not easy, but doable, interpretable, actionable.

Inspiring – Principles are value-based and express ethical premises, which is what makes them meaningful. They say what matters—in how to proceed, and the result. That should be inspirational!

Developmental – Applicable in diverse contexts, and over time. It should provide a way to navigate the turbulence of complexity and uncertainty in an ever-changing world.

Evaluable – can you judge if this is principle is being followed? Can you document and judge what follows from adherence? Is it taking you where you want to go?

(The GUIDE framework is by Michael Quinn Patton)

Accountability for Purpose: a Carrot and a Stick

“Purpose” is the plump, juicy ‘carrot’ that attracts staff, donors, and investors. Accountability is the ‘stick’ that ensures you live up to your promises to stakeholders and beneficiaries. Without the discipline of the principles-based approach to defining and implementing organizational values, organizations risk falling on the “fluffy” side of the line, without a clear system to integrate their values into their internal systems for brand, storytelling, management and impact evaluation.

The last point in the GUIDE framework—“Evaluable”—is the lynchpin that ties principles to strategy and management. With a set of well-written principles built into your management and onboarding processes, you can measure whether or not principles are being followed, and measure the impact that results from adhering to them, to great effect (this is the crux of Patton’s work). (For evaluation mavens out there, crafting the effectiveness principles will build nicely on work you may have already completed on Theory of Change or other approaches to impact evaluation.)

This approach to purpose and values is a significant departure from a “Triple Bottom Line” type of approach, where targets are set in each ‘bottom line,’ and may be traded off against each other. Our approach to values-led strategy integrates social and business outcomes and does not necessarily prescribe the methods to achieve the outcomes, but insists on the integrity of the process, and empowers and gives clear direction to decision-makers at all levels to make it so.


Garth Yule is a Managing Director at Junxion. He works with clients in the private, public and social sectors, helping them describe “the differences that make a difference,” articulating values, defining strategies, and measuring impact. Reach him via [email protected].

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