Let's Get Real About Values!!

Cartoon of three people talking with the text "I do have strong moral values, but I don't let them rule my life."

The value of values

There has been increasing attention to values in leadership and organizations over the last 35 years. However, we’re only beginning to understand how to work with them. In fact, the most prevalent practice of working with values in organizations has generated a lot of skepticism about the value of values at all! Specifically, on one hand, we talk about values as being what matters most to us. On the other hand, typical practice is convening a small group of people to generate the organization’s values that then are approved by senior leadership. When they are posted on the wall or website, we have “done values”. Nothing changes and most employees couldn’t tell you what they are. This kind of perfunctory exercise is possibly worse than doing nothing. It has rendered something very important nearly meaningless. And that is the bad news.

Why are values missing?

The good news is that leaders and organizations who have taken the matter of working with shared values seriously, have provided profoundly positive examples of leadership practice. In these instances, organizations are transformed into energizing and fulfilling workplaces that produce desired results and reduce wasted resources. So why isn’t everyone engaging the possibilities of working with shared missions and share and values? There are at least three reasons.

First, a fundamental impediment in our culture is that we have inherited a perspective and assumptions shaping our views. If we have a problem or task, we look for a “tool” and then designate “a part” of the organization to do the job. This leads to a misunderstanding of what “values” are. So, when it comes to identifying real shared values this approach fails; shared values are literally those about which all of us in an organization are deeply concerned or inspired. They are real because we get very upset about or shrug our shoulders in hopelessness and skeptically say something like ‘here we go again’. And/or that brightens our day with new energy and hope. Values aren’t ‘out there’; they are in our lives and experienced and their results are evident to others. Working with values in organizations means a cultural shift in how we do things.

Second, the expectation that “doing values” is a quick fix and attractive only if it can be done in a way that doesn’t add to our existing overload. In fact, it raises questions about our existing overload! It means we must take the time to engage in a process in order to reduce the costs of misalignment, misinformation, and mistrust. We need to replace mechanistic metaphors with those that highlight human energy and imagination.

Finally, we have misunderstood that. while it is critical that leaders support people throughout the organization to do the work with values, they cannot delegate the responsibility of effectively embedding values in the life of an organization. They must model the practice of leading with explicit values that are consistently experienced by others in their practice.

Painting with tree showing at top of ground and all the roots below ground.

Engaging values

In the Values Based Leadership Certificate, we have learned that leading with explicit values takes time and dedication; it requires continuous attention. We begin with ourselves as leaders to understand our real values, that is, what really matters to us. We cannot expect perfection but serious commitment to ‘walking our authentic talk’, reserving the right to make and learn from our mistakes. Further, we need to be very thoughtful of the ways that working with values is embedded in teams, larger units, and the whole organizations. For all of this we have to look beneath the surface, in ourselves, our teams and organizations. A helpful metaphor from Tor Eneroth and his colleagues at the Barrett Values Centre – a tree which we think of as being a trunk with branches and leaves. But like values and culture, the roots of a tree, though invisible and typically forgotten are the source of life and energy to what is visible above the surface. The whole tree is important. We must take the time to be aware and engage with what lies beneath the surface.

Cartoon credited to The Wall Street Journal.