I cannot think of many organizations who do not aspire to the notion of values lived and not just spoken or written. In times of stress and economic pressure, the consistency of practicing organizational values is under severe pressure. Predominantly because leaders have to make choices, and this can result in taking decisions which at face value do not align with the organization’s values. Or decisions are taken which do not actually contradict the organization’s values, but the way they are implemented does.
Why do organizations have values statements? There may be many reasons. Perhaps the one that seems most obvious is the wish to characterize the culture and behavior that they aspire to. For some, organizational values can be part of the corporate wallpaper, i.e. organizations have them for decoration with little function other than to appear once a year as a reminder during the performance review cycle. Some organizations do make efforts to embed them in practices such as talent reviews and leadership selection. The differentiating question is, “do these values characterize every decision and mean more than tenure, influence, expertise, or financial return?” Application sometimes contradicts sentiment.
Just recently I heard a CEO describe how decisions had been made with the well-being of employees being paramount, knowing that this in itself would spin off into corporate value. But this is not universally the case. There are also leaders who make decisions based on financial, strategic, or geographical factors, with less concern about any adverse impact these decisions have on people. Even though regret is expressed, values get lost in action.
It is not just leadership teams who have conflict around values. Many individual leaders are also challenged in this respect. They know about the values statements, and they are proponents of them for measuring performance and managing talent. But bringing them to life with real application and demonstration is sometimes not as evident. Role modelling and holding themselves accountable for living the values is sometimes overlooked because it is not seen as having more importance than other performance measures.
So, what is to be done? Living values means holding a constant plumb line to decisions that are made and practices that are implemented. As well as having a Return On Investment (ROI) measure, organizations should also have a Return On Values (ROV) measure. As part of the review process for critical decisions which impact the organization and employees, an ROV step should measure not only whether the decision is consistent with the organization’s values, but also whether the implementation of this decision will embody these values. For example, performance review processes need to be designed, implemented, and communicated consistent with an organization’s values. Managing the day-to-day performance of these employees also needs to be consistent with these values.
Assessing leaders for fit and potential is a massive industry. There are some assessment tools that explore the values that a leader holds, and many others focus on competencies or behavioral traits. The greatest source of leadership impact and effectiveness over time is character. The Cambridge Dictionary defines character as the particular combination of qualities in a person that makes them different from others. This distinctiveness is often associated with moral values and not just personality traits or experiential prowess. The need for organizations and leaders to embrace moral values that champion the best of human behavior is much needed in an increasingly stressful world.
It is the choice of every leader to live by the highest values, not just to acknowledge them as written or spoken aspirations, but to apply them in practice every time.