As leaders welcome the new year and identify priorities for themselves and their organizations, one topic stands out that may be badly in need of more attention. It’s their organizational values.
Organizational values are at the core of each company’s culture. They are the key principles that guide and direct the decisions made at all levels within the group. They should lead to desired business results. Astute leaders understand the importance of ensuring their values provide a strong foundation. They govern behaviors both at an individual and team level. They are therefore purposeful in identifying the most critical beliefs that will drive performance to create the desired culture.
How to spread these values
The most effective way to communicate values is to be explicit in identifying and discussing them, along with providing examples and descriptions of how they should be applied. Then, you should ensure the organization’s strategies, structure, policies and processes align with these values. And finally, provide recognition and rewards to employees who exhibit them.
The primary question for you as a leader is whether your values continue to reflect how employees should behave. Have you considered current events and your changing environment? While values should be enduring beliefs that are embedded in the organization, leaders need to periodically review them to ensure they meet the needs of and respond to the evolving issues faced by employees at all levels.
The past two years have been unpredictable. The pandemic, politics, climate change, supply chain issues, the “great resignation” and… well, you fill in the blank. This leaves organizations and employees grappling with questions they haven’t experienced in the past.
Here are some examples:
A company value that communicates employees first might have interpreted that in the past as providing certain levels of medical and life insurance benefits, vacation time and development opportunities. Now, the company may need to provide more mental health benefits, meeting-free Fridays and training for leaders on how to demonstrate empathy and compassion.
A customer-first value may need to be further clarified by training employees on how to handle increasingly unacceptable consumer behaviors such as name-calling, verbal outbursts and refusal to comply with business requirements (think about flight attendants and service workers). Another unintended consequence of this value is the recent story of an employee operating a fast-food restaurant alone because none of the other workers showed up. Customers initially felt irritated by how slowly everything was moving until they realized she was trying to do it all herself. They then gave her a tip for her effort and left without ordering anything. While her initiative was admirable, is that what she should have been expected to do?
Quality is another popular value that companies espouse. But how does that apply when there’s a shortage of component parts and a higher turnover of workers, resulting in additional time for training and repairs? Then add an increasing backlog of orders and first-line managers who are incentivized to make production targets. What guidance do the company’s values provide in addressing this situation?
Every organization wants trust from its customers and employees. But if there are safety lapses or employees are told to cut corners in products or services, this sends a clear message about priorities and expectations. This also applies during financial crises. Some companies reneged on promised benefits to employees and retirees, then wondered why employee engagement (an outcome of trust) plummeted.
Refresh to become relevant
While your core organizational values may be still appropriate, the behaviors, policies and expectations that accompany them may not be fully relevant to our new environment. Without identifying challenges and discussing how you want the organization to respond to them, employee conduct and decisions will vary and result in unexpected and different outcomes.
This is an opportunity for self-reflection within the leadership team. It’s an opportunity for discussion and employee feedback on how different challenges drive conduct that doesn’t align with organizational values.
Consider these questions:
- Do your values address the current reality experienced by your employees?
- What decisions do they need to make that they didn’t have to in the past? How have you prepared them to properly consider these decisions?
- How can you empower employees to interpret organizational values when considering future information?
- When do employees face choices of aligning with one value while violating another?
This isn’t a one-and-done exercise. It’s a probing and extended dialogue designed to uncover behaviors that may be detrimental to the organization’s objectives and business results. It requires listening to stakeholders, absorbing unpleasant feedback and acknowledging gaps in planning. Financial sacrifice and public apologies may be necessary. And your team will know whether you’re serious or just going through the motions. Ultimately, what you do will reflect your personal values as a leader, such as transparency and authenticity. This might be the time to refresh them as well.