This article was written by Hilary Viney, FSCB, and Dr Rebecca Park and Dr Edward Brooks, OCP.
A strong sense of collective purpose is central to the motivation and collaboration that supports an organisation to be productive and innovative, and to solve problems as they arise. A firm’s purpose and values define how it commits to doing business, and should underpin how all employees, regardless of seniority or job function, make decisions and approach their roles day-to-day.
This article, co-written by the FSCB and researchers from Oxford University, presents an overview of recent data collected by the Oxford Character Project[i] on the current values adopted by 47 large UK financial services firms, how these values are defined, and the strategies firms say they use to embed their purpose and values across their business. These data are complemented by insights drawn from the FSCB’s exploration of shared purpose and values in financial services firms over previous years.
What are the most common core values held by finance firms?
Among the 47 financial firms the Oxford Character Project surveyed in their UK Business Values Survey[ii], the 10 most common core values referenced are illustrated in Figure 1 below:
Figure 1: 10 most common core values across financial services firms in the UK Business Values Survey
Many of the values at the top of this list are consistent with previous similar surveys in the UK and US. These surveys have shown that integrity and collaboration are regular features in the first two spots for financial services firms, as well as for companies in other sectors. A challenge for organisations with commonly used values is being clear on what they mean and how they apply in practice. What is new compared to the last UK survey of financial services firms (conducted by Maitland in 2015) is the presence of passion, courage, and empathy. These values align with an emphasis on holistic, person-centred organisational culture that is increasingly common in UK businesses.
When presenting core values on their websites, firms frequently accompanied each with a short description of how they understand this term and what it means for them. The Oxford Character Project researchers coded the descriptions for each value, where published by firms. The table below shows how the three most common core values were defined by financial services firms in the survey.
|Core value||How surveyed firms define the value|
|Of the firms that have adopted this as a value, most of them defined integrity using the word Honesty (27%). This was followed by terms including Openness (23%); Fairness, Trust (18%); Customer Service, Thinking Long-Term (14%); Do The Right Thing, Eco-Sustainability, Good Judgement, and Simplicity (9%).|
|Collaboration||Collaboration was defined using terms of Customer Service, Cooperation, Success, Supportive (21%); Diversity & Inclusion, Openness, Respect, Trust, and Together (17%).|
|Customer Service||Financial organisations who had customer service as a core value defined it using terms of Excellence (38%); Care and Kindness, Improving (19%); Action Oriented, and Perseverance (13%).|
Given its important contribution to driving strong organisational cultures, shared purpose is the characteristic that sits at the centre of the FSCB Assessment Framework. Since 2016, the FSCB has explored shared purpose via two questions in its annual Employee Survey, asking employees whether they find their firm’s purpose and values meaningful (Q35); and whether they believe there are any conflicts between their firm’s stated values and how business is done in practice (Q36).
Figure 2 below shows the results for the shared purpose questions from the 2022 FSCB Employee Survey, which received almost 42,000 responses. 82% of all respondents agree that their organisation’s purpose and values are meaningful to them, with 5% disagreeing. 66%, a much lower proportion of respondents, however, agree that there is no conflict between their organisation’s stated values and how they do business. 10% saw a conflict. Whilst there has been volatility in responses to these questions over time, the results in 2022 are only slightly higher than when the survey was first run in 2016.
Figure 2: Results for shared purpose questions, 2022 FSCB Employee Survey
How do firms embed purpose and values?
As part of their research, the Oxford Character Project also captured how firms purport to embed their stated values into their organisational cultures. The researchers categorised the five most common embedding strategies used by firms as follows:
|% of financial firms reviewed||Embedding strategy|
(e.g. policies and practices set out in the code of conduct align with and support stated values and behaviours)
|68%||Leadership Driven Approach
(e.g. the role of the board in ensuring values are aligned, leadership ‘setting the tone’ through communications, and embedding values in leadership development programmes)
(e.g. through share ownership schemes and remuneration)
(e.g. conducting surveys, metrics monitoring and comparing metrics against other organisations)
(e.g. embedding values in recruitment and retention strategies, staff training and through coaching streams)
The Oxford Character Project’s research highlights that firms use a range of strategies (and often multiple strategies) in their endeavour to embed their values throughout their organisations. As we have found in our work in recent years, it is easy for a firm to have a set of stated values, but harder to embed them successfully in the way that the firm does business[iii].
To explore this theme further as part of its annual Assessment of culture, the FSCB conducted focus groups with employees at several member firms in 2017. The focus groups sought to explore what might differentiate firms’ business areas with relatively higher and lower results regarding perceived conflict between their organisation’s stated values and how they do business (Q36 in the Employee Survey). We conducted one set of focus groups with employees from business areas where respondents considered there was relatively less conflict between values and the way the firm did business, and another set with employees from business areas where they perceived more conflict.
The FSCB analysed these focus groups using a grounded theory approach[iv] and found that, across firms, employees from business areas that responded more positively to this question:
- more commonly mentioned there were effective structures in place to help them implement their firm’s values day-to-day (e.g., practical tools to aid ethical decision-making);
- had a greater sense that their firm’s values were reflected in the products and services offered to customers;
- more commonly spoke about effective two-way communication within their firm, speaking more positively about how senior leaders listened and responded to employee input;
- more frequently mentioned that leaders or managers genuinely believed in the firm’s values, discussed them without cynicism and demonstrated them in their daily actions.
Employees from both higher and lower perceived conflict groups frequently identified ways in which their firm communicated about their values internally, suggesting that simply promoting or referring to a firm’s values is not of itself sufficient to ensure they are truly embedded.
Instead, this work highlighted the importance of leadership – and, in particular, of leading by example – when it comes to instilling a firm’s purpose and values into the everyday behaviours and decisions of employees. If organisations are eager to put values and purpose at the centre, they would do well to foreground the importance of role-modelling values and purpose in the selection and development of leaders, focusing as much on personal character as on technical competence.
The Oxford Character Project has been researching character and leadership development since 2014. They have identified seven research-based ways that character is developed. Emulating role models is one that has been tried and tested in a wide range of cultural traditions for centuries. We learn from those we look up to, and in organisational life that includes our leaders since they have been held up by the organisation as worthy of esteem.
If we want to embed values in organisational culture, a good place to start might be with leadership development—helping existing and aspiring leaders to grow as role models who authentically embody their values and the values of the firm as habits of character.
[i] The Oxford Character Project is a research group at the University of Oxford, dedicated to exploring character and leadership. Founded in 2014, the Oxford Character Project combines expertise in programme design and delivery with academic insight from across disciplines. We contribute thought leadership through academic articles and industry reports, and deliver character and leadership development programmes at Oxford and in other universities and commercial organisations.
[ii] Researchers at the Oxford Character Project conducted a content analysis of the corporate values statements and annual reports of 221 leading UK businesses, including a focus on the financial services, technology, and legal sectors. A team of coders analysed the documents to explore: the espoused values of UK firms, how these values are defined, and how companies describe their approach to embedding them in the life of the organisation. A full report of this analysis, including details of the methodology, can be found here.
[iii] In addition to the focus groups discussed in this article, the FSCB also conducted work with a member firm exploring the extent to which their newly defined purpose had been truly embedded across the organisation. Using a mixed-methods approach this research produced the ‘Purpose Maturity Journey’ – a framework identifying four stages of purpose maturity and embeddedness. This work also identified suggestions, from the perspective of participants, on how senior leaders could seek to improve purpose maturity across their organisation.
[iv] A grounded theory approach in qualitative research is one in which the systematic review and analysis of collected data leads to the emergence of new hypotheses or theories about the subject matter being investigated (see, e.g., Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1994). Grounded theory methodology: An overview. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 273–285). Sage Publications, Inc.)