Spanish Philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once said, “Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.” So, as organizations sit in their Boardrooms and deliberate to come up with the right list of values, how much meaning, importance and identity does the organization ultimately associate with them?
Many experts say organizational values are essential to who we are and the actions we take. Values support the vision we have for our organization. Guide our perspective. Attract and engage our employees. Signal to our customers and communities what kind of company we are. They are the foundational platform of our brand, our reputation and framework of acceptable behaviors. They form our character.
So, when things are happening in the world around us that contradict and even violate the values of our organization, what responsibility do we have as organizational members to speak out on these events? And importantly, what is our obligation to engage employees in discussion and dialogue about issues that may be highly charged and controversial.
What We Can Learn from General Silveria, USAFA
It is one thing when these violations occur on our own turf. This was evidenced by the recent incident at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA), when the message “go home” and an accompanying racial slur was written in the dorm of five black cadets. General Silveria, superintendent of the USAFA swiftly responded and assembled the 4,000 cadets and staff with a powerful and pointed speech. The message he left this group (after asking them to take out their cell phones and record it), “If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out. If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out. And if you can’t treat someone from another race or a different color skin with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
General Silveria demonstrated an essential leadership trait: taking action. But even more important is the message when he told this group that there would be active discussion within the USAFA about what their values mean.
Crisis expert Helio Fred Garcia says, “A value is not just something you believe; it’s something you’re prepared to enforce. It’s not enough to talk the talk. Leaders need to walk the walk. Organizations with strong value systems operate at a higher level of integrity than those who don’t. When an infraction of their values occurs, which results in a crisis, they have greater credibility.”
Most of us do not work in a place where something so blatantly in violation of our values occurs and plays out in the media. But even so, we likely are privy to more subtle forms of racist, sexist or homophobic statements that are made by others we work with and often quietly never mentioned or even ignored as if they never happened. But does that mean they didn’t happen? Not for a minute.
Do We Think It Can’t Happen Here?
Every day we read about some drama with an accusation of sexual harassment, where reported years of such behavior went on. A recent notable Hollywood film mogul has destroyed his reputation, and is bringing down the company he co-founded with him, with allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. A famous television executive for decades sexually harassed his employees and it took years for his actions to become public. Prominent political figures make demeaning comments about women almost everyday and have engaged in sexist and racist behavior and commentary diminishing the offices they serve. Have events like this become so frequent that we have become numb or even immune to what they represent? Or do we have the mistaken impression, “That does not happen here. That happens only in Hollywood.”
Behaviors like this can happen anywhere. If we say no, then we have our head in the sand. How active are we talking about these unethical and vile types of behaviors and discussing them openly within in our organizations when they occur? Do we relegate our commitment to our values to the annual email from the CEO stating them to our employees? A posting on our website? These communications, while supportive, likely may seem as a half-hearted attempt to our stakeholders to just “check the box”.
Are all values equal? Management consultant Patrick Lencioni (2002) categorized the types of values an organization has. He affirms that organizations have core values which serve as the cultural foundation, aspirational values, which are values a company needs to succeed but currently does not have, permission to play values, which are the minimal acceptable behavioral standards for employees and finally accidental values which are those that are spontaneously cultivated by leaders over time.
Organizations Don’t Get Behind Their Values
Even if we have solid values, ones that leadership champions, our employees don’t believe we really mean them. In a 2014 study conducted by The Boston Research Group (2014) based on a survey of Americans from many organizational levels, found that only 3 percent of those surveyed described their company’s values as a form of “self-governance.” What does this mean? Essentially, employees do not see stated values as something the organization enforces and credibly gets behind.
What does this say about organizational values …are they important? Lencioni says, “If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.” (2002). Consultant Ron Carucci adds, “Leaders know company value statements often become nothing more than cosmetic window dressing. What appears less common is their understanding of the destructive consequences of allowing that to happen” (2017). Accordingly, with the statement of values comes an implicit set of responsibilities. Organizations who have values have the responsibility to make sure that they are not only understood but are talked about, put into context and even, when necessary, reevaluated.
Organizations provide lots of communications in support of their values. They include information in employee orientation sessions. Post their values on their websites. C.E.Os send well-conceived and eloquent communications to their workforces to reinforce those values. But, is that enough? And, when issues play out in politics and in current events that are in direct contrast to our values what should we do? Some organizations or celebrities may issue statements stating their position. But again, is that enough? Not even close.
Few Employees Strongly Believe in their Company’s Values
According to a Gallup study (2016), only 23 percent of employees strongly believe in their company’s values. Where does that leave the other 77 percent? Not exactly where leaders would like them to be. And what are the accompanying implications? Can it be employees don’t agree with the values? Are we hiring the wrong people? Should we reconsider our values? Do they think leaders don’t care about the values? Or is it that our values just don’t matter and most employees think we really don’t stand behind them anyway.
According to the Gallup study (2016), “Companies with strong cultures make reinforcing that culture a constant priority.” How does an organization demonstrate its commitment to its values? Executive coach Mike Dunford states, “Leaders need to foster an environment that celebrates, rewards and gives meaning to the values the organization stands for. Whether the organization is a start-up or has been around for 100 years the reinforcement of values by leaders based on their actions is essential to cultivating and protecting a culture that reflects them.”
Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind (2012) emphasize that leaders need to engage employees in conversations that help to foster cultural norms. “Smart leaders today, we have found, engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high.”
In this construct, the authors describe four qualities that are necessary for these conversations to take place: intimacy, interactivity, inclusion, and intentionality. While physical proximity is not always possible for employees and leaders, “mental and emotional proximity is”. (2012) Fundamental is gaining employee trust and creating an environment of openness, transparency and inclusion. If you don’t have these, there cannot be a conversation. And where does employee engagement fit into the conversation?
Influence of Employee Engagement, Retention and Culture
Gallup (2016) reports that only 32.6 percent of employees in the United States are engaged at work with more than a third planning to leave their job in the next 12 months (2017). If your employees are not engaged and /or planning to leave how could you expect them to embrace your values? And if you are focused on changing behaviors and your organization’s culture, then roll up your sleeves because you have work to do.
Cultures do not form overnight and culture change, when it is successful, can take years to achieve. “But culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.”(2017) “Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.” (2017). Authors Bryan Walker and Sarah Soule (2017) state there must be a deep desire and commitment to change. By framing the issue, leaders can engage employees in a more meaningful connection to what they are trying to change through emotional associations and inciting collective action around the desired behaviors. Plus the conversations are so much more interesting, valid and authentic when we engage in dialogue about contemporary issues as they play out in the world around us and connect what they mean to our organization.
What Organizations Should Consider
So as you sit back and assess what actions your organization should take there are some very basic ones to take stock of and consequences to be mindful of:
Are your values really your values? Take stock of them. This requires taking a hard look. Are the values the ones that are relevant now or do they need to change? Do they address contemporary issues and your workplace? Are you reinforcing them with your strategies? All of these questions need to be addressed.
Make it clear from the beginning: Before you even hire someone you should make it clear the values and behaviors that are expected. It sets a tone and creates a level of commitment that makes it apparent what kind of organization you are and the requirements of organizational members.
Leaders must speak out: As General Silveria did at the USAFA; leaders must boldly speak out on the standards of acceptable behavior and the values that cannot be compromised.
Connect with what is going on in the world: Important for any communication to be effective is relevance. When events are happening that are in support or in violation of your values, connect that to discussions within your organization. Have those timely conversations. Guide and assist your employees with their understanding of these events so they have more tangible meaning in relation to their own organization and respective jobs. By engaging employees in regular conversations we draw a line in the sand and say who we are and what we believe in.
Reinforce those conversations: Essential is continually reinforcing those conversations with regular check-ins with our employees to ensure their level of understanding and commitment. These are not annual conversations but ones that need to occur as part of the running of our organizations.
Provide leaders with the tools they need: We cannot make the mistake thinking that leaders know how to engage in these conversations and bring up and discuss sensitive and potentially controversial topics. Providing leaders with the tools they need in order to be able to effectively have those conversations with their employees is critical.
Know that values come at a price you have to be willing to pay: Lencioni (2002) stated, “Values can set a company apart from the competition.” He adds “ But coming up with strong values—and sticking to them—requires real guts.” Values have consequences that can inflict pain on an organization, limit the organization’s strategic and operational freedom, constrain the behavior of employees and leave executives open to criticism even for minor infractions (2002).
Don’t be blind or look the other way: This is where many organizations find themselves in trouble. They don’t want to admit there is a problem or have to deal with an unpleasant issue. Leaders must swiftly take action when there is an infraction of values and make it clear those values are not negotiable. If you look the other way you are only condoning the behavior and it is likely to grow. Your employees are watching with 20/20 vision and notice what you do and don’t do. Nip it in the bud. Take action. Have the courage to do the right thing. Send a message what kind of organization you are.
Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member in graduate programs at NYU and Columbia and consults with clients on a wide range of PR, marketing and business issues. She created the first communication program on sexual harassment in the United States and served as the CCO for three global publicly traded companies. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amortegui, Jessica. “5 Reasons You Need To Instill Values In Your Organization”. Fast Company. March 27, 2014.
Carucci, Ron. How Corporate Values get Hijacked and Misused. Harvard Business Review. May 19, 2017.
Dvorak, Nate, Nelson, Bailey. Few Employees believe in their Company’s Values. Gallup News. Sept. 13, 2016.
Groysberg, Boris, Slind, Michael. “Leadership is a Conversation.” Harvard Business Review. June 20, 2012.
Lencioni, Patrick. “Make your Values Mean Something”. Harvard Business Review. July 2002.
Mercer Consulting. “Mercer Talent Trends 2017 Global Study Empowerment a Disrupted World”. 2017.
Walker, Bryan, Soule, Sarah. “Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate”. Harvard Business Review. June 20, 2017.