Making Values Live

Posted by A.C. Ping
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After a decade of downsizing and reengineering most organisations are now running close to the bone in terms of human resource levels. But this transition from traditional hierarchical structures to flat, lean, team based approaches has often left managers at a loss as to how to manage their people effectively. Whilst a hierarchical structure was in place managers had clear control over employees and were able to manage by giving clear directions and taking control. However, these new organisational structures require employees to be empowered and self directed so that their actions are aligned to delivering the organisational vision. Many organisations are tackling this problem by producing values statements how they wish people in the organisation to behave, but what are values really ? and how can an organisation give life to new values ?

What Are Values ?

Values indicate the things we care about most in our lives, they guide us in making decisions and show us what is most important. In this sense they keep us on track like the railway lines that keep a train on track.

Common values include: honesty, love, justice, freedom, respect for life, tolerance, acceptance, fairness, efficiency, accountability, teamwork, consideration for others.

When we care about particular values we generally feel their worthiness in the heart, see them as being logically correct in our heads, and put them into action through our hands.

Values are vitally important because they are the building blocks that we use in trying to answer the question of,

‘How ought we to live ?’ or ‘What constitutes a good life ?’

In this sense the values that we hold as being most important, guide our behaviour.

Key Questions

When we are faced with dilemmas where we have to consider how we ought to act we can ask three key questions as a guide:-

  • What is right ?
  • What is good ?
  • What is fitting ?

When we ask ‘What is right ?’, we are considering what is right and wrong in terms of a rule based system. For people with a religious persuasion this question can specifically relate to what is deemed as being right and wrong by scriptures such as the Bible, the Torah or the Koran. For others, it is relates to the rules for living that we have been taught as children. For example, it is right not to harm people, or, it is right to tell the truth.

When we ask, ‘What is good ?’, we are considering what would be a good outcome from a situation. So when faced with a dilemma we may consider a number of possibilities and upon consideration of the outcomes, choose the one that we feel delivers the best result.

The third question, ‘What is fitting ?’ relates specifically to the cultural context in which we are faced with the dilemma. For example, traditionally, in Japan it is fitting for women to let men walk through doors first, in England the opposite is the case. In England it is fitting to look people in the eye – we see it as a sign of honesty. In Thailand, to look a superior in the eye is seen as a sign of disrespect.

The trick with values dilemmas is that the answers to these three questions do not necessarily agree, so we are often faced with situations that are not black and white but very hazy. This can often lead to conflict as people may take very firm positions around issues that they sincerely believe to be correct.

In the Organisation

We all bring our personal values into the workplace. However, the workplace provides a unique cultural setting with its own sets of written and unwritten rules. The written rules provide black and white answers to a number of issues such as sexual harassment and discrimination.

The unwritten rules fill in the gaps and provide the fodder for the ‘corridor conversations’ that take place in all organisations.

When considering what values employees see as being most important in an organisation, surveys have shown that employees look to two things:-

  1. The behaviour of leaders in the organisation
  2. What type of behaviour is recognised and rewarded

The unwritten rules in an organisation can be much more powerful than the written ones. For example, an organisation may have a written rule that says that the company values well being and balance. But if senior managers are working very long hours and not looking after themselves, it sends a very clear message that the written rule is just words and that the real way to get ahead in the company is to work exceptionally long hours and put everything into the company.

It is also worth noting that ‘leaders’ in an organisation can include people who have an informal leadership role either due to length of service or simply due to their personal character.

Making Values Live

To make values live in an organisation it is key that senior managers both understand the values and take the time to reflect on their own behaviour in relation to these values.

There are several steps that an organisation can take to make the values live. These include:-

  1. Taking senior managers out and asking them to discuss what the values actually mean – come to a common understanding about this
  2. Considering what the behavioural implications of the new values are – that is, what things should be done and should not be done
  3. Ensuring that Managers have time to reflect on their actions
  4. Creating forums or networks for discussing issues that come up around the values
  5. Adopting a clear and justifiable way of resolving values conflicts

Beyond this, Managers need to be aware that it can take time to change the culture in an organisation. Employees are used to behaving in a way that reflects an unwritten set of rules. Now they will be told that the old rules don’t work anymore and new ones need to be learned. Understandably they may be sceptical, they will watch the behaviour of senior figures to determine if the new rules are really in place or if they are just a marketing exercise.

It is therefore vital that there is consistency across the senior management team, hence the need for senior managers to take time out and come to a common understanding about the new values.

In essence a change of culture requires a change in attitude regarding what the rules are so that all people believe in the new rules or values. Research has shown that a change in attitude requires the following elements:-

  • The behaviour must be distinct
  • Behaviour must be consistent over time
  • Behaviour must be consistent in different situations
  • There must be majority agreement that the new values represent the new rules

Senior people in the organisation need to understand this if they wish to truly change the culture. They must be willing to take actions that significantly demonstrate the values and work constantly at impartially examining their own behaviour to ensure that it reflects the values.

Without this type of commitment, inspiring organisational values statements are not worth the paper they are written on.

Times of conflict and hardship in organisations present leaders with the best opportunities to demonstrate organisational values and it is in these times that the stories which sustain cultures are often created. As Martin Luther King Jr. said,

"The measure of a man is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience but where he stands in times of conflict and controversy"


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