Why bother with organisation values?

UK health and social care organisations now all typically boast their own defined set of values. They proudly list them on their websites, stationary and notice boards. Leaders refer to them during presentations, in newsletters and other communications. They tell us how good and caring these organisations are. But now consider them against the backdrop of numerous news stories, independent reports and the daily reality of being an employee or patient. Bullying; sexism; burnout; problematic sub-cultures; patient complaints. Take your pick from these issues, and more, because they all make regular appearances in these blog posts and beyond. David Oliver makes some very good points in his recent column in the BMJ: “When organisations’ behaviours betray their value statements.

The problem with organisational values

As human beings, we each develop our own unique moral code and guiding principles. They are informed by our personal life-experiences and beliefs. For some of us, this might not go much further than experiencing a simple gut feeling or niggling voice in the back of our minds when things aren’t right. For others, who have taken the time to consider the matter, this could be a set of written values. In the best cases, these are consciously used to inform decisions or to review actions. But we are all unique.

Organisations and teams benefit in many ways when members commit to common ideas. So the obvious step toward improvement is to define values as guiding principles and communicate expectations. If we know what we want to be then we can check our behaviours against this. We can also hold each other accountable and celebrate what we do well. These are fundamental elements of functioning as an effective team. It sounds like it should be straightforward – but how do you take the individual nuances in beliefs of numerous people and create something that is meaningful to everyone?

The reality is that we often end up with words which are a weak dilution of anything meaningful. David Oliver describes how these value statements often end up as “generic platitudes that no one could disagree with as principles.” “We act with dignity”; “are collaborative”; “inclusive compassionate” and “based on individual needs.” But, given the challenges and constraints which employees face on a daily basis, are these expectations realistic ? And what’s the point of spending time defining values if behaviour that’s at odds with the stated principles regularly goes unchallenged? In addition, each and every one of us can interpret the same set of words in our own personal way.

So are values statements a waste of time?

Well, if organisations create them to tick a box, or if people don’t even try to live up to them, then the answer has to be “yes”. But David Oliver’s closing paragraphs point the direction toward making them well worthwhile:

I’d challenge all readers—myself included—to go back to the organisations or health economies they work in, look at their value statements, look at the NHS constitution, and ask themselves, “Do we even believe in what we’ve signed up to? How much of this do we really live up to in practice? And how could we get a bit closer to delivering on it?”

David Oliver – BMJ, September 2021

And it’s that last question which is perhaps the most important one. None of us are perfect. When we each define our personal values, they are aspirational. They are what we want to be now, and in the future, regardless of the challenges we face. When we fall short, we remind ourselves of this and take steps to redress or do better in future. In this respect, organisation or team values are no different.

When well-considered, well-written and utilised, they are effectively goals which tell us what we want to be and provide direction. They should be used to inform decisions, to challenge and to hold each other accountable – even if they are inevitably generic to some extent.

How do you use your team and organisation’s values on a daily basis?

Stephen McGuire – Managing Director