How to Operationalize Your Core Values

Values are important to corporate culture. Companies go to great lengths to list these lofty sounding concepts. Then they put them on plaques on the wall in their lobbies. But values do not have any power unless those companies operationalize their values.

Simply listing your organization’s values is only the first step. If you stop there, then the list may have the opposite effect. If you do not operationalize your values, your team will likely laugh at them because they ring hollow. Unless operationalized, values will just be words on a plaque.

Once you have identified your values, here are four steps to take so you can operationalize your values.


1. Explain your values


If you just list your values, then they will be subject to interpretation. Instead, you need to explain them so everyone has the same definition.

When I work with clients, I tell them to watch out for using platitudes for values. Common values like Service, Excellence, and Integrity sound great on paper, because everyone thinks they know what they mean. But in reality, no one really knows what they mean.

All of your company values need a thorough explanation. Otherwise they will remain nebulous. And values only have power to create culture when everyone knows what they mean.


2. Contextualize your values


Not only do you need to explain your values, it’s important to show what they look like in context within your organization. It’s one thing to have a good definition of the word. It’s another thing entirely to know what it looks like in action in what you do every day.

It’s important to show what your values look like in your everyday actions. The Bethesda Health Clinic in Tyler, Texas, goes so far as to have their employees act out their values in a drama at their annual retreat to drive the values deeper into the culture.

Context is everything in operationalizing your values. To incorporate your stated values into your culture, they have to be demonstrated in order to be lived out.


3. Reward your values


Once you have defined and contextualized your values, then it’s important to assess behavior through the lens of your values. You must continually remind your team of your company values through your company processes.

It’s important to incorporate your values into how you assess your employees’ performance. Letting them know you will evaluate them based on your company values demonstrates the importance you place on your company values.

In my first bestseller, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew, I explain how important your rewards will be to your team: “People want to be recognized and rewarded—and they want to be recognized and rewarded by you. If you reward their positive behaviors, they will repeatedly respond in the way that you want them to. … As a result, you will change the culture in your workplace.”


4. Curate your values


Once you have recognized and rewarded your company values in action, it’s important to curate those stories to preserve your team’s institutional memory. Through committing those stories to writing, you will preserve an important part of your culture.

Nordstrom has long encouraged their people in their Code of Business Conduct and Ethics to “USE GOOD JUDGMENT IN ALL SITUATIONS.” I record this story in my book, Dear Boss, to show what Nordstrom’s idea of good judgment looks like in action. “Before the invention of electronic tickets, a customer shopping at Nordstrom accidentally left at the counter her airline ticket for a flight she was going to take later that day. A sales associate noticed the ticket and immediately called the airline to determine if the passenger could be located and the ticket reissued. Upon hearing that was not possible, the Nordstrom associate caught a cab to the airport, paid the cab fare, located the traveler, and personally delivered the ticket. Not only did Nordstrom reimburse the cab fare, the company endorsed her actions—because it was the Nordstrom way.”


Key Takeaway


Identifying your core values is only a first step. Unless you contextualize, reward, and curate those values, you are missing the opportunity to create your culture. But through intentionality and consistency, you can operationalize your values and create the culture you and your people will want to have at your workplace.


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Robert McFarland is the author of the bestsellers, Dear Boss: What Your Employees Wish You Knew and Dear Employee: What Your Boss Wishes You Knew. Robert is also President of Transformational Impact LLC, a leadership development consultancy helping companies improve their employee cultures to make the companies healthier, more productive, and more profitable.


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