Now and then we are called in to work on a company’s values, and our most important advice (that most have not heard before) has little to do with the actual values themselves.
I had reason to revisit my thinking on the topic (originally done with Amie Devero) after I received the following email from Trisha Dagg (firstname.lastname@example.org), a consultant with a firm called Blueprints. She said:
I first came across your consulting company when I read an article by Amie Devero … entitled: Corporate Values, Stimulus for the Bottom Line. She had outlined some traits or strategies that a values-based company possesses, including values that drive behavior. I am doing some research on values enactment in organizations and I am currently looking to find out about tools/methods that organizations are using to train in values and align behaviors with corporate values. There is not a lot of literature on the topic Â many organizations say they live their values but it is hard to find out the ÂhowÂ. I have come across a few methods such as: values specific codes of conduct, values-based interviewing and performance appraisals, and a few tools such as role-playing and card games to help align values and behaviors. I was hoping you could tell me if you have done any interventions that are specifically geared to aligning values and behaviors. What sorts of tools you used, how did you measure results?, etc.
My response to her was simple — firms that are living their values are the ones spending the most time questioning where these same values are missing, and what must be done to fill the gap.
By contrast, beware the company that spends most of its time boasting about how “value-driven” it is.
In this context, the actual values themselves do not really matter, as they offer a mere starting point. When they are chosen, or developed, the one or two days that is spent developing the list represent less than 20 hours or so of focused group effort. During this time, people’s understanding of what they want for the organization begins to align, and they begin to move towards a common language that expresses this end state.
However, this is just a warm-up activity.
The practice that the company must undertake involves a continual examination, deliberation and closing of the gap. This practice is what mastering values is all about.
As the company practices, it gets better in a few critical areas:
- The employees deepen their joint understanding of what they really want, and learn better ways to articulate it clearly. “Integrity” for example, a very popular value appearing on many corporations’ values list, might very well mean something very different for any pair of employees.
- The company becomes more skillful at noticing the gap. It is likely that specific gaps that exist will be noticed by only a handful at first. Over time, they will hopefully be able to enlist others in seeing what they see, but the process in moving from individual inspiration to group understanding is a perilous and risky one. Arguably, there were employees at Enron who saw trouble brewing and were willing to say so, but the company’s culture would not allow their protests to develop along the pathway from realization to action.
- The company develops multiple ways of closing the gap. When a critical mass of people noticing that the gap exists develops, then taking action to close the gap is the natural outcome.
These three capabilities are what we call “living the values.” It involves a continual shedding of the idea that “we have arrived” and encourages the natural evolution of values, which are merely an intangible set of agreed upon ideals. Given that values are merely an element of language, then only further talking and listening (i.e. conversation) will produce the shedding and evolving that is required to be “living” the values.
This takes courage.
For some, it means taking the risk of being fired, as they flirt with that invisible line beyond which “everyone” agrees no-one should go. Usually, it is just easier to go with the flow, give up any heartfelt belief in the values, and retreat into resignation and cynicism. That is the easy path.
The road less travelled, however, is the one that every company needs its employees to be willing to take. Companies need employees who are willing to believe, and are open to taking risks on behalf of their beliefs.
If enough of these employees existed at either Enron or Arthur Anderson, we would instead be talking about the corporate leadership that they provide in living their values. However, it would not be because their magic list of values is superior to anyone else’s.
Instead, we would know about the courage that their people have to take risks for what they believe in, and the great job each company does in encouraging this vital character trait.
Values interventions, therefore, have more to do with encouraging employees to believe, be courageous and take risks. That is the critical missing element and the one that interventions need to focus on more than anything else. There is no single prescription for how to build this element as each company is different, and the activities to be undertaken range from individual coaching to large group sessions.
The most successful interventions are self-generating as they produce individuals who continually push the company’s limits on what can be questioned, including the question of whether or not there should even be a “magic list of values.” At that point, the actual values do not even matter. It is the way of living that counts.