By Ally Maughan and Margaret Meyer, HR consultancy www.peoplepuzzles.co.uk

Recent CIPD research shows that 40% of employees say that their company's Value Statement isn't worth the paper it is written on. You may think that this doesn’t impact your company’s bottom line but this actually does matter as business is often lost because of your people; not because of your offer.

Values are usually expressed as ‘fat’ words like respect, courage and excellence. These words carry a huge amount of meaning crammed into just a few letters. While fat words can inspire and draw people together, they don’t necessarily have a huge impact on how people live and act on a daily basis. After all, one person’s ‘courage’ could be another’s ‘risk’.

Look at Google leading the way with 10 big, fat corporate values. And perhaps the flabbiest and most maligned is ‘you can make money without doing evil’. How does that fit with Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, claiming he was ‘proud’ of the steps it had taken to cut its corporate tax bill?

Fat words – such as ‘excellent’, ‘effective’ or ‘innovative’ - punch above their weight. Fat words cram a huge amount of meaning into just a few letters. These are the words that can inspire and motivate your people and help paint the big picture.

Fat words certainly have a role to play, but they’re often quite abstract. Take the word ‘brave’ for example. It’s a great word but, if you told your employees to be brave, what would you want to see? What would being brave at work actually look like? Rescuing cats in their lunch breaks? Standing up to clients? Wearing a neon onesie to work?

In order for fat values and words to have real impact, they must be combined with skinny explanations that are more specific and behaviour-based.

Skinny words explain; they add the detail. They might not pack as much punch, but they give you something you can see or hear. Employees have to be able to understand what you want them to do. Skinny words give them that detail. They provide the basis for behaviour that can be seen or heard.

To be a great leader you have to strike a balance. Use the fat values and words that capture people’s attention but back them up with skinny explanations that everyone can relate to and act on.

Take Winston Churchill for example. In one of his most famous speeches he said: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost shall be.” There’s no question it’s inspirational but if he had left it there would it have had such an impact?

Churchill’s speech is remembered for the skinny words - the words that call to action: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Vague language makes it harder to succeed because employees can’t really be sure what they are meant to be doing. Imagine Churchill’s speech in a work environment such as an employee appraisal. Is there any doubt about what is being asked?

When it comes to spelling out what you really mean, things have to relate to specific behaviour. It’s a good idea to include physical actions - what people will see, hear, say and do.

Here are some examples that translate a fat value into a set of skinny actions:

• Respect: I talk and listen to every colleague with the same quality of attention.

• Innovative: I approach each problem with fresh eyes because I know there's something new I can do.

• Teamwork: When working with others I actively listen, share ideas and seek out all opinions.

So here are our top tips for fat and skinny values for business leaders:

• Use the fat language to engage and inspire

• When it's lean and specific you need make sure you use skinny words

• Great leaders find a balance of fat and skinny

Ultimately, behaviour is key. For businesses and leaders to be successful they have to use fat values to capture how the business should operate. We think that successful leaders and managers have a balanced diet – one that blends inspirational fat words but with plenty of skinny language that gives direction and focus.

About the Author
Ally Maughan and Margaret Meyer work at People Puzzles; an HR consultancy for growing businesses.