Are published “values statements” a waste of time, or worse?

Posted by on Jul 4, 2011

What’s wrong with values statements?

A formal statement of organizational values, it’s said, defines acceptable standards of behaviour for members of the organization. Without values, the narrative goes, people will act as it suits them rather than following organizational norms.

Given the large numbers of organizations that publish values statements in their strategic plans and similar official documents, leaders apparently take values quite seriously. But the apparent lack of intention with which most organizations launch and publicize their stated values suggests that leaders don’t really know how to make use of them.

The problems begin with the ambiguity of most written values, which often read more like fuzzily-written platitudes rather than clearly written descriptions of behavioural goals. We think this fuzzy abstractness makes many values statements almost useless. What’s worse, their fuzziness can contribute to a general smugness that leaves most employees thinking, often erroneously, that these values accurately describe themselves.

Ask most people whether they generally uphold published values such as “honesty”, “collaboration”, “efficiency” and “team players” and most will agree. These are values most people ascribe to themselves, even when behaviour tells us something different. Unfortunately, fuzzy statements of organizational values often succeed only in assuring everyone that their behaviour is OK. If that’s how people view your organization’s values, their influence may be worse than neutral. They’re actually a barrier to critical evaluation and improvement.

The difficulty of managing the invisible

We aren’t saying that people don’t believe in values. We think many strive to live by them. But people often express doubts about others’ commitment to values. Unfortunately, the values that live in our hearts are mostly invisible to others, just as their values are invisible to us. A typical human response to this invisibility is to attribute beliefs, motives and intentions to others drawing from our own mostly unexamined personal database of stereotypes and biases. If we can’t rely on what we perceive in each other, how can we manage people’s compliance with invisible values? If action is what interests us, shouldn’t we be more interested in managing behaviour?

Managing behaviour may be the key. Unlike values, behaviour is observable, and that makes it manageable. Instead of trying to manage using fuzzy values statements such as, “we are a team” as a guide, leaders can define what teamwork means in their organization. We’ve seen definitions ranging from “we work together towards shared goals” to “we define problems together and find solutions that add value”. These examples differ from each other, but both describe behaviours, sometimes called climate goals, which teams can use to observe, rate and track their own interactions.

We’ve worked with organizations in which much progress has been made managing behaviours using such “climate goals”. Where the leadership team defines their own ideal behaviours and takes time to manage themselves, it can have a powerful effect on overall leadership team effectiveness.

Lack of visibility isn’t the only issue

Using fuzzy values statements isn’t the only fault we find with most organizations’ values statements. Two other common errors stand out for us.

First, many leaders select and publish a set of organizational values without thinking through how these values will be used. The lack of any apparent plan suggests these leaders believe that the act of publishing these values will somehow integrate them into everyone’s behaviour. Unfortunately, the most likely outcome in the absence of a plan is a dearth of constructive action, and no positive result.

Second, many leaders make the mistake of publicizing values as a reaction to what they see lacking in the organization. Unfortunately, when a set of published values is perceived as a criticism, the values are likely to accomplish the opposite of what is intended – increasing the level of cynicism rather than increasing the influence of positive values.

All is not lost

If it sounds as though we oppose publishing organizational values, perhaps we’ve overstated our criticism. In fact, we continue to believe that values are important, but only if they can be defined as behaviours, and compliance with them is actively managed. We offer the following three tips to help those who think managing behaviour to comply with published values is a worthwhile initiative.

1. Manage behaviours of those closest to you

You’re likely to have more success managing the behaviour of those with whom you have frequent contact. We strongly suggest starting by managing your own behaviour and that of your team. Once you have personal experience with what you’re considering asking others to do, you’ll be better prepared to decide if and how you’ll take climate management to a broader audience.

2. Manage the behaviour of those with the most leverage

Focus your behaviour management efforts on the organization’s most influential members. That group is, unquestionably, senior managers. Observed leader behaviour has tremendous influence – probably more than most senior managers realize. If the senior management team can’t demonstrate that they constructively manage their own interactions, there’s little hope that anyone else in the organization will attempt something they perceive their leaders can’t or won’t do.

3. Lead by setting the right examples

Third, focus on managing behaviours that will set a positive example and create a positive and motivating climate within the organization.

Senior leaders set the tone in organizations. This is especially noticeable when there’s a change at the top. A new CEO who changes the organization’s “unwritten rules” is soon emulated, for better or for worse. It may be even more noticeable after a merger or acquisition – wholesale turnover in the senior management team brings a whole new set of unwritten rules. These “rules” are quickly communicated through behaviour and copied in expanding pockets across the organizations. This happens informally and even unconsciously, which is probably part of the reason why its effects are so powerful. Imagine the positive influence if these “new rules” are constructive.

What behaviours should your leadership team demonstrate day to day if they’re to maximize the extent to which they bring the best out of your workforce? Answer that question and you’ll be well on your way to leading by example, demonstrating the behaviours that will have the greatest positive effect on the rest of the organization.

© Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. 2011