Most organizations have some combination of a purpose, mission, vision, set of values, or principles, and unfortunately for many, these inspirational and aspirational words become mere decoration on the walls. Everyone seems to agree with the idea behind the words but we can all think of reasons why we can't quite embrace them or barriers in the form of company policies that make no sense or organizational norms that make it feel too risky to change how we do our work. Oftentimes, soon after we have our big roll-outs and announcements and see others, especially leaders go back to operating the way they always have, the posters on the wall serve as an occasional reminder of how the people in the organization are not living by those words. In extreme cases, the words that are preached but not practiced feed the cynicism and resignation that they aimed to eliminate.
As a firm believer in the power of words, I am certainly not advocating that companies do away with these aspirational statements. On the contrary, I think it’s extremely important for leadership teams to spend time to explore the values and principles that will guide them. I really believe in the power of making bold declarations and spreading the word, which is why I cringe when I see that organization has spent a great deal of time and resources coming up with powerful and intentional words and statements, only to render them useless, and in some cases even damaging, simply because they haven’t figured out how to integrate them into the way they work.
In today’s post, I’d like to explore the key contributors to this problem and suggest actionable steps you can take immediately to bring your company’s values to life in your organization.
A quick search for company value statements will produce millions of hits and you will find statements like the following, …and they all sound great:
“We are one team”
“Dare to disrupt”
“Create a Culture of Honesty”
“What we do, we do well”
“If it is to be, it’s up to me”
“Do the right thing.”
the list goes on...
I assure you that if you were to talk to the people within the organizations that have declared these values, you will be hard pressed to find anybody who is against the ideas. You won’t hear people say “I just don’t agree with honesty. I think we ought to lie more often.” Or “Why should we care about customers?” More often than not, if you engage in a dialogue about company values, what you will hear is that people agree with the idea, but have all kinds of reasons why they can’t put them into practice. The work, then, is to figure out why this is and how it can be remedied.
I hope that you will consider the following causes and potential solutions, and get in action on one or more of these ideas to unleash the power of your company values throughout the organization and in everything you do.
The Problem – Leaders think their lack of engagement or productivity is caused by a slogan deficiency. They put a great deal of effort and resources into developing the words and run out of energy by the time the real work of putting them into action starts.
The Solution – Before starting any renewal effort to create or update your company values, map out the entire journey, starting with the process to develop the statements and continuing through the most important part of the work, which involves building them into everything you do. View the development of the statements as the sprint to the beginning of the marathon, and reserve your energy and enthusiasm for the roll out and implementation phase.
The Problem – Leaders delegate the integration and execution of the values in the name of involving and empowering others.
The Solution – Recognize that there is a fine line between involving others and abdicating. Any and all significant shifts in the culture or values of an organization must be led and role modeled by the leaders who have initiated them. It is often prudent to identify a group of early adopters and have them be the champions of that change, as long as it doesn’t end up feeling like a project that you have delegated to them. If you take this approach to accelerate progress, the champions must simply be partners to the leadership team member who are also actively involved in doing the same, as opposed to a separate team that goes out, role models the change, and updates the leadership team on their progress.
The Problem – Leaders attempt to role model the values in visible ways and announce a few big decisions that clearly demonstrate they support the idea… but fail to actively help their people figure out how to integrate the same values and principles into their day-to-day work. For instance, a company may announce a transformative policy regarding their Diversity and Inclusion efforts, but they may fail to deal with day-to-day challenges people have in feeling free to express new and different ideas on their immediate work team.
The Solution – Making visible changes is a must for any transformation to take hold. They send a clear signal that something has changed and that leaders are serious about the declarations they have made. Keep in mind that often the big decisions are easy and the thousands of little barriers people face in changing the way they work is hard. The impact of those visible changes will multiply exponentially if they are followed by a widespread effort to identify the barriers that are preventing people from practicing that same idea in their day-to-day routine.
The Problem – Most people are looking for somebody else to go first. They don’t want to take the social risk of being a pioneer. They want some reassurance that they are not going to be out there by themselves.
The Solution – I love the TED talk by Derek Sivers that demonstrates how a movement is made in 3 minutes. As Derek points out, "it is the first followers that transforms a lone a nut into a leader." Don't just wait for the first followers to emerge. Actively look for and identify potential first followers. Talk to them, listen to them, and encourage them. Cultivate a bunch of first followers and early adopters, and they will help you create a movement where it’s not okay not to adopt the mindset and behaviors depicted in your value statements.
The Problem – People are hesitant to ask questions for clarity because they don’t want to be labeled as resisting the movement or being against the idea. So their questions remain unanswered.
The Solution - If your values or principles are truly transformative, they require and aim to invoke a significant shift in people's mindset and behavior and you must give people license to ask their questions and discuss the implications of the new way of thinking and behaving. Create informal forums in addition to the formal meetings for people to discuss their ideas and questions in small groups among themselves where it's safe to be open and create ways to surface their questions and concerns and address them openly. Most importantly, be careful not to label people as troublemakers if they are simply bringing up questions or concerns so they can reconcile how they are going to implement the ideas into their work. Anticipate questions people may have and initiate and encourage dialogue.
The Problem – People are focused on the external barriers that are keeping them from acting according to the values, as opposed to taking personal responsibility and making it happen.
The Solution – Create forums and mechanisms by which everyone recognizes the satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from taking charge of their own mindset and behavior, and for being accountable for their actions rather than feeling like victims to their circumstances. This process is often more effective if it is initiated by an external partner who is not perceived to have a hidden agenda (to get more work out of people), but once the ball gets rolling, it can effectively be sustained through on-going reinforcement within the organization. In my experience, the investment of time and resources in getting this conversation going always produces massive returns for the people in their personal and professional lives, and the organization as a whole, because it empowers people to act within their circle of influence rather than wait for their bosses or their circumstances to be perfect.
The Problem – Leaders focus more on gaining alignment and agreement to the ideas rather than going to work on identifying the real barriers and eliminating them. This causes the organization to feel like their leaders are out of touch with reality and are talking about some pie-in-the-sky idea that will never come to fruition.
The Solution – While it is critical for leaders to consistently dwell on the possibilities that the values will bring to the organization and cause people to be inspired by those possibilities, those efforts will be a lot more effective and credible if they involve conversations about the real barriers that are in the way of people actually putting them into practice. Leaders are better served to regularly do a deep dive into the real barriers and help people think through, develop, and implement solutions. This doesn’t mean the leader needs to be into every little detail, but if this behavior is role modeled in a few areas, the word gets out and that sentiment gets replicated throughout the organization. It has the power to transform the concepts behind the values into something that could be a tangible and achievable reality.
Obviously, this is not intended to be a recipe but rather a set of ideas to provoke some thought. I’d urge you to take a few minutes and reflect on where your organization stands relative to just how well your reality matches the words you have on the walls. Then, identify 1-2 things that you can personally do today to begin to move the needle. Ultimately, the best approach is to put concerted effort into assessing the specific situation at hand and creating a customized plan to make the most out of the work you have already done to bring your organization’s values to fruition. If you’d like to hear more about the proven process that I use to guide organizations through this process, feel free to schedule a call with me at by clicking here so we can discuss your specific challenges and potential solutions you can implement.
As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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