Living Your Values Means Defining Behaviors
I have come to believe that the same can be said for values and mission statements. Most company leaders understand the importance of describing their companies' values. We often fail, however, to communicate what specific behaviors demonstrate those values in action.
If employees don’t understand which behaviors support the values of your company, there is the risk for misinterpretation and misalignment that leads to friction and other unintended results. We tend to assume that others understand language as we do, yet oftentimes this not the case. We, as business leaders, need to lay the groundwork for a common understanding of our proposed values. Our employees and customers deserve a solid description of which behaviors support the company's core values and which do not. This way, everyone knows what is expected of them. Our customers also deserve to know exactly how we are walking the walk, rather than trying to interpret jargon. For instance, what do we mean by "integrity"? It's a commonly used word, but rarely is it actually defined. Does it mean we stand behind our product 100 percent of the time? Does it mean we report and address all customer complaints? Does it mean we don't say anything behind a colleague's back that we haven’t said to them directly?
In most cases, our values themselves don't need to change, but how the company talks about them does. For instance, just about every company says they value relationships. But what specific behaviors are expected of people in a company that holds stakeholder relationships as a core value? Is it a commitment to meeting face-to-face with each client every quarter? Are employees expected to reply to client emails within a certain timeframe? Do we give associates leeway in how they a solve customer problems? Do we learn from each other about which customer solutions work best?
We often fail to communicate what specific behaviors demonstrate our values in action
Or what does it mean to value diversity? Is it about being more inclusive (and what in turn does that mean?). Are we hiring more women or people of color or just supporting local organizations that serve marginalized groups? Once we hire our diverse workforce, how do we make every employee feel included and able to be fully themselves at work? And perhaps just as important, what kind of behaviors won’t be tolerated in an inclusive environment?
Ideally, core values are established by the leaders and reinforced by people at every level. However, employees can certainly shape and change these values. Your "boots on the ground" employees see a lot of things those in the corner office might not. Employees have a valuable role to play in helping executive leaders understand those internal inconsistencies, constraints and biases.
Employees also find those pain points where espoused values and actual practice may be dissonant. If we say our company values honesty, integrity, collegiality and relationships, but we accept un-collegial behavior from high performers, do we really value integrity and collegiality and relationships? Or is really the only thing that matters the bottom line performance? Values have to be applied equally to all in order for the whole culture to embrace understand and work together to reinforce them.
This is part of the work. Because companies are organizations full of humans—and we are all imperfect—this is a process of continual learning and evolution. We should strive to align what we say we value with the behaviors we reward. Too often, companies think they can change their culture by changing their public-facing values. But in reality it's the ecosystem—not only what you achieve in terms of performance but also how you achieve it—your culture--that defines your business.
Topics: Corporate Citizenship
Katherine Smith is the executive director of the Center for Corporate Citizenship, Boston College Carroll School of Management. Katherine is the co-author with Dave Stangis of '21st Century Corporate Citizenship: A practical Guide to Delivering Value to Society and to Your Business.’