Stop Telling Your Employees How to Think


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A public sector service provider was about to have a high-level government audit. Panicking, executives realized they had no corporate values, so two highly unsuitable directors in the organization “devised” some over a coffee late at night. What unfolded over the next 18 months was the stuff of a West End farce. They produced numerous mouse pads and posters with the new values on them, and they instructed the staff that this was now what the organization stood for and thought.

Good people are OK about being told what to do, as long as it is reasonable and within their personal value set. What no good person likes is being told what to think. Over those 18 months, before the company called in the Halo Works, it lost 60 percent of its highly skilled and very expensive-to-replace professional staff and about the same amount of the junior staff. The service provider became a pariah within the sector, finding it impossible to attract good people to replace the ones it had lost.

Whether or not your organization has posters, wall charts, mouse pads and bumper stickers highlighting a set of values, your people and your organization have a way of operating that drives the way they work. These are the true values of your organization, so why not design them around the people who live these values day in and day out?

They were probably the reason two of his three biggest clients no longer felt part of the relationship and the reason a number of his key account staff members were leaving.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “values” as “the moral principles or accepted standards of a person or a group.” At The Halo Works, our definition of organizational values is somewhat different. They are your organization’s DNA. They define everything you do, and they represent the way the organization looks and feels to anyone who has contact with it when it is being the best it can be.

Too many executives believe that developing a series of values in a director’s brainstorming session will suffice. The difficulty arises if your people and even your customers don’t buy into these values and cannot reconcile these values with the way they see you doing business with them on a daily basis. People notice when you are trying to be something you are not.

Stress and attrition

We call this a misalignment of values. This can develop into a real problem for an organization. It often causes a degree of stress among staff, leading to higher attrition and sickness levels. People inherently want to give a good service and do the right thing when they are at work. They will appear hesitant or lose confidence if systems and processes are designed to work against their core values.

Customers will also sense when things don’t feel or look quite right. They might not know why exactly, but they will notice the effects—such things as people under-delivering on promises or slipping up on their attention to detail.

When the service provider finally called us in, we worked to “unpick” the so-called values they had initiated, and we suggested some that were workable within a fractured organization.

In another case, Alison did a pitch for Halo (our method for unearthing the true values and value of an organization) to a very large outsourcing company. The company provided all the print and fulfillment services to a very large section of the financial services industry. It had a few very large clients, who each spent millions of pounds with the company. Two of the clients had been lost in very quick succession, and the company wanted to know why.

Alison described Halo and how it worked to allow organizations to align behind their core purpose and values. She talked about how properly researched and aligned values allow an organization to have the customers they deserve and employees who feel attached to the organization’s true purpose.

During her presentation, however, she noticed a very beautifully etched glass plaque with a collection of values on it, including “inspiring” and “creative,” but none related to a very efficient company that prints, photocopies and stuffs envelopes. “Where,” she asked, “did these ‘values’ come from?” The CEO said he had devised them and felt they reflected the sort of company he wanted to run.

They may have reflected the company he wanted to run, but they were probably the reason two of his three biggest clients no longer felt part of the relationship and the reason a number of his key account staff members were leaving. We didn’t work with them, either.

So how can you ensure your organization the right values that will help your employees enjoy their work more and help them be more productive and engaged with the organization while at the same time making your customers more committed to your business? We’ve identified these three key steps:

  1. Ask your people to describe what they think and feel when they are at their best. Use these as the basis for designing your organization’s core values.
  2. Identify the types of behavior people readily associate with these values. What are the outcomes your organization delivers on a daily basis that staff and customers will easily recognize as you being the best that you can be?
  3. Measure how successful your organization is at living these values.

Research has shown that organizations go in the direction of their measures. If you get the right measures in place, you are more likely to achieve the future you want. Put values into your organization that are aligned, and they will add value and meaning to everyone: your staff, your customers, your stakeholders and, most of all, you.

Alison Bond
The Halo Works
Alison Bond, director of The Halo Works, Ltd, a company she started in 1994, has worked with many top organizations, encouraging them to rethink the way they interact with customers. Trevor Millard, also a director, joined the business in 1997. He has extensive experience in customer services and customer-based research.


  1. Allison, Right on. Although we come from different approaches, we both come to the same conclusion — stop telling and start selling what you want employees to do. I call this “Internal Selling.” If one does not sell — telling not just what and how, but why — it causes revolution and not evolution as you dscribed in your article.

    There are a couple of thought provoking points that are, and I cannot fathom why, put aside by management once someone has been hired. Employees are hired for their skill, knowledge, and the ability to think. Yet, once the are hired the attitude is that they are not supposed to think, they are to do as told. Then, why not hire less knowledgeable people if their ability to think is not as important?

    The other point, and I and others have written for Customer Think is that employees should be looked upon as customers and it is only when employees can talk positively about what is going on in their business lives that what goes on will be done as expected or desired.

    The end result is the cost of bringing in new people and getting them up to speed which can only be when they can adapt to the new culture. The costs of inefficiencies and the discust of the employees still working for the firm could be offse it management looked at what they do, ask, tell is really selling what they want done.

    Thanks for your bringing up a subject not often seen as being a problem by those that cause the problem.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Winner of the Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants


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