Anyone involved with a big corporation or organisation would at some point in time walk into the inevitable value statement. A big, bold sign at the entrance foyer proclaiming the things this organisation believes in. You would see words like communication, respect, integrity, excellence. If they are really hip there will be a few hashtags thrown in there as well. And you might even score a cap with a value or two emblazoned on it in the official corporate font and colours.
Of course, the intentions of putting up these hallowed words are honourable and should not be discouraged. Because they are trying to inspire us all to a higher moral level. But the alarm bells must start ringing if I tell you that the values you read above were the values of a company called Enron. Yip, those guys who caused an enormous environmental disaster, crippled their company and destroyed livelihoods. All in the single-minded pursuit of profits, driven by the highest levels of leadership in the organisation. The same leadership who formulated their value statements. And that is the problem – values look good on paper but they don’t necessarily find purchase in reality.
Are your value statements true?
Let us, for the moment, forget the content of the value statements because there are a bewildering array of statements to select from. And if we leave the judgement of their appropriateness for another day the only thing left that is of concern to us is whether the leader really believes in his/her value statement. It would be fair to assume that if they really believe in them, we have a better chance of seeing those values result in a change in behaviour. Clearly the only measure of the truthfulness of a value statement must be whether it is seen in decisions or actions. I am true to my values if I act according to them. That sounds easy enough but for organisations it is quite difficult to make the leap from a value statement to reality.
This a significant leadership issue that we at Schuitema spend a lot of time with. The leader who wants to know what he/she must do to guide subordinates to apply the values. The simplest, easiest method applied to achieve this compliance to values is of course to make them compulsory. And in order to make them compulsory it helps to simplify them into rules. Demand “leadership by example”. In other words, leaders do what they expect their subordinates to do. This simplification does more harm than good. As it is clearly aimed at mindless compliance in matters which, even superficially, is so complex that crude compliance to the values could actually be detrimental.
When do values apply?
Take honesty as an example, on the face of it there can be nothing wrong with expecting honesty from employees, it is an exemplary value. But there are situations where brutal honesty can be detrimental. It is the “You can do better” type of honesty compared to the “You were really pathetic” honesty. It is possible to apply these typical values in isolation in such a way that it destroys rather than nurtures. And this is where the trick of values lie. We need to look at values from the point of view of the legitimacy of an employment relationship to determine why we are applying them, rather than regarding them as a finite list of rules.
What makes the employment relationship legitimate is not the rules that we apply or how we apply them. Nor is it the laws governing the employment relationship or the contract of employment, or the salary that we pay. We determine the legitimacy of a relationship based on the reason for its existence. And the only legitimate reason for an employment relationship is if the leader is aiming to care for and grow the subordinate.
If that is the reason for it, the leader will demonstrate honesty in such a way that it helps the subordinate to grow. The leader will apply any value that is thrown on the wall in the correct way. And from the right vantage point. Considering whether it will help the subordinate or not. And the leader will be applying a number of values not found on the wall in addition. Purely because they serve the purpose of assisting the employee to grow.
Maintenance of values
If the value statement is aimed at employees to “stop them from stealing us blind”, to get employees to better serve customers and to get employees not to break the law to reduce litigation costs. They all get the flavour of something that management want us to do so that they can make more money. Even though the values represent something virtuous in isolation from the organisation.
There is much cynicism in the value business. And money lies at the root of the problem. Clearly the organisation needs to be profitable to survive. But there is a tendency to apply these values conscientiously until the business goes into the red. At which point the values are promptly discarded because “we cannot afford them”. You cannot afford to let a business survive if the only value keeping it afloat is greed. That is no place to be.
How it really works
If the central purpose of the relationship between leader and subordinate is accepted and understood, then surely it must also follow as a logical consequence. Any attempt to influence the subordinate would start with and be at its most effective in individual discussion and action. If the whole thing is based on the legitimacy of an individual relationship, it is unlikely that the best way to influence this relationship is to write something on the wall at the entrance to the building where the subordinate walks past twice a day.
If you want someone to take you seriously you must address the person individually. The way you conduct that conversation will reflect all the values that you really stand for. And it is likely to involve some pain. Standing for a value is rarely a fun exercise. It involves the willingness to sacrifice relationships if that relationship is based on the wrong values. This is not only in individual discussion with subordinates that the leader has the opportunity to showcase values. It will show when you prioritise your meetings, when you allocate the budget, when you answer the phone when a stranger calls, when you give a subordinate a lift. Every working day is a treasure trove of values in action.
What do you do everyday?
The way you deal with subordinates and the leadership style that you apply is not the issue in question. Elvis Presley once said that values are like fingerprints, nobodies are the same but you leave them over everything you do. If I ask your subordinates, your spouse, your children or your friends what your values are, they will tell me the things they see you do every day. And what they say about your values is the truth.
So don’t stress too much about getting those values on the wall. Although it is helpful to express our shared interest. But the best thing you can do to change your organisations values, is to live according to them.
To read more on the Care & Growth model, please buy the book, Leadership: The Care & Growth Model
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