A common challenge for internal communicators is to embed a set of chosen “corporate values” in an organisation. There’s an equally common set of tools for doing this, usually ranging from the co-creation of those values in representative groups across the business, through repeated demonstration of those values at work both in leadership and colleague behaviour, to their inclusion in performance reviews.
This is all very well, except that it fails to address the elephant in the room: why you would want to do it at all. I mean really, what do you expect to achieve?
The answer is likely to be that the adoption of these values will somehow unite the business in a higher-performance culture, or something like that. (The weaker answer would probably be something about bringing the brand to life, which could itself only be a means to an end, whatever that end might be).
Correlating cause and effect
We might reasonably ask about the expected cause and effect here, how talking to people about corporate values is going to improve performance. To be fair, it’s hard to deal with that question in generalised terms. A proper answer would probably demand specifics – specifics about individual values and how they could relate to known issues for the business.
Then again I suspect in most cases that correlation would be missing, because most corporate value sets, whether co-created or reinterpreted through cascade meetings, or whatever else has been done, are far too generic and bland to bear any such connection.
But let’s take a plausibly favourable instance. Let’s make up a “value” that does have an apparent performance correlation. Let’s settle on “we go the extra mile”, and assume this phrase has been reasonably “embedded”: developed through discussion groups with staff, featured extensively in internal media with stories showing individuals doing it, and spilt regularly from leadership lips. Let’s assume it is strongly communicated in induction, and features in appraisals.
All of this is likely to get you to the point where most employees know full well that “we go the extra mile” is something that management is very keen on. But whether they do anything about it will depend entirely on many other factors.
At this point the internal communicator might say “well I did everything I could do”, and in a sense this is true, but only because all you did was in response to a misconceived instruction, and that misconception may well mean all your hard work was actually counter-productive, that it alienated rather than engaged (and as we all know most workforces remain seriously disengaged, one plausible reason being that managements are forever barking up the wrong communications tree).
Awareness is not motivation
The obvious problem is that the common approach to “embedding values” disconnects awareness from motivation. In reality the “value” is only valuable if people are motivated to act on it, and motivation demands critical attention to a lot more than communication processes.
It is without doubt helpful for employees to know what the business wants and expects of them, but their willingness to act in line with those expectations will depend on how they feel about the organisation, and their work as part of that business. It will depend on whether they feel that work is worthwhile, whether they feel their own contribution is important and recognised, whether they feel they have scope to do a good job.
This dependence is not a radical or controversial idea. It has been well-examined and tested in psychology research and yet continues to be routinely and systematically ignored in business practice, perhaps because it requires harder, deeper work than a “values” communication exercise. Indeed, corporate values barely figure among observable motivating factors.
Not least something like “we go the extra mile”, cannot really mean anything important at all, and in itself is not saying anything people don’t already know (ie that working harder, giving more than the minimum, is likely to please your employer). But the question of why you might desire to please your employer, or indeed work in a way that satisfies you and happens to please your employer, takes us back again to the real matter of motivation and engagement.
Top down exercises and “alignment”
I’m not suggesting that corporations should not behave ethically, driven by real values, and it may be important for senior management in particular to have some kind of ready touchstones for that ethical behaviour. But for internal communication the business of embedding corporate values is more often than not understood as a change tool, a way of “aligning” behaviour across an organisation with vaguely desirable but muddily defined outcomes (indeed those desired behaviours have been so blandly defined as to be practically meaningless). More than this, the whole notion of “embedding values” itself rests on a fundamentally top-down concept of how you introduce and manage change, and that really isn’t how change happens.
Gaining support for change and making it happen usually requires engagement. Engagement in turn means attending properly to the levers of motivation, to the factors which may directly influence the sense of purpose people have at work, to peer recognition as well as financial reward, to the sense that you as an individual have the means and the scope to be effective. This is why in the real world organisational change cannot be engineered directly in the way that your might change a design, because organisations are more organic than they are machine-like.
Communication and context
This doesn’t mean communication is irrelevant. On the contrary it’s critical. But its role needs to be properly understood. The communication going on in the business will provide a context for everything you want to do, preferably a supportive one, but if it’s misconceived may get in the way, may obscure rather than clarify. The concept of “corporate values” is too indirect, too pious to be a helpful part of that background context. I’ve seen it said that embedding values means using “actionable language”, but the language of corporate values itself is barely actionable. It’s not even helpful as a peg on which to hang a programme, because the peg itself smacks too easily of the deadening hand of management cliché.
Apart from providing supportive context, the work of communicators must be to sit alongside those in HR, in organisational development or process design, to advise and support them directly in presenting what they’re contributing to the engagement equation, to offer insight back to senior management on how all these pieces are fitting together, and what more might be done. Internal communicators may not commonly be in a position within the organisational hierarchy to do this, but solving that particular problem will mean communicating more effectively to general business managers what it is that communication can actually do.
Internal communication for its part will not move forward until it starts taking even basic elements of organisational psychology seriously, and until it learns that largely mechanical processes, however humanely cloaked,are no substitute for serious critical thinking about cause and effect in organisational behaviour.