Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

Many – even most – colleges will have made a corporate commitment to a set of core values. Here’s an example from one London FE college:

  • Learner centred
  • Improving
  • Professionalism
  • Equality
  • Teamworking
  • Challenging

Such values may typically be listed on posters on the wall, or in policy or strategy documents, or (as in this case) on a web site.

And I want to make clear, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad about them – or any of the many iterations of such value lists produced by most colleges.

But I have 4 questions:

  1. What purpose do they serve?
  2. What do they mean?
  3. Who owns them?
  4. Do they matter?

Before going on to explain the above questions, and provide some suggested answers, I want to declare an interest: I am a passionate advocate of the importance of values. Principles, beliefs, ethics: factors by which most of us – students, staff, parent, carers – live and (often automatically) regulate our lives. As someone once said: once you have your values sorted out, it’s quite easy to make day-to-day decisions. Whether consciously or not, we use our values as filters, screens through which all information must pass on the route to decision making. Put simply: when we have choice, our decisions are typically driven by our values.

So back to the 4 questions:

1. What purpose do they serve?

I’ve already made my own views clear: they are a driver and arbitrator of decisions. But they may have other, and complementary, purposes: they might be used to generate and sustain consistency – of decision making and behaviour; of branding the college in terms of its emotional or psychological appeal: “come to us, because we are….(fill in the value set)”.

They may also be used as a cultural, organisational unifier – ‘this is who we are, and what we believe in’ – and where values work well, that is exactly what they do. I can visit some college and know within 30 minutes how embedded and universal the values are.

Wherever I am, there are the values – not just on the wall, but on the ground. And from my experience, the most common purpose of identifying and creating values is to drive behaviours. So for example, if one value is ‘respect’ or ‘being respectful’, then staff and/or students within the college are expected to ‘behave respectfully’. So far so obvious.

But here’s the problem: what does ‘behaving respectfully’ look like, or sound like? If the value cannot be demonstrated, then in fact it doesn’t exist, and simply remains as an ideal, or concept.

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2. What do they mean?

As with the example provided above, most values are offered in a vague, conceptual way – often as a single word or two. As such, they are open to interpretation. This may not be a bad thing – everyone makes their own sense of the word; but if your college is trying to encourage and build consistency, the values might need spelling out in more detail. And their purpose might also benefit from being clarified. And the best way of clarifying each value is to list typical behaviours that are represented by that value.

3. Who owns them?

Where did the list of values come from? They may typically be written by a small group of either senior staff, or specialist staff from Marketing, Comms, or HR. But to what extent does the list genuinely represent the staff and or students?

The values are more likely to be both understood and owned by those who have had a voice in selecting them. So I recommend that, for the values to have meaning and ownership, staff and/or students should be involved in identifying them.

4. Do they matter?

If people are not sure what purpose they serve; if they are uncertain about what they mean or how to demonstrate them; and if they have little or no ownership of them; then in reality, they will not matter. They will remain as posters on the wall, rather than behaviours on the ground.

Value-based behaviours (VBB) or behaviour-based values (BBV)

To be truly effective, there needs to be a direct and clear link between behaviours and values. So the approach should be to produce value-based behaviours (VBB) or behaviour-based values (BBV). For example, I run a half-day workshop where participants first of all create their preferred list of values, and then, for each value, have to identify between three and six behaviours that will represent that value.

Typically participants find it much easier to identify the values, than to identify appropriate behaviours. Yet for the values to be meaningful, owned and delivered, that is what has to happen.

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

To hear more from Arnie subscribe to his podcast series "Top Ten Tips for Teachers and #FE Managers the Podcast Series" or visit his Newsroom on FE News.

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