Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny."
― Mahatma Gandhi
Most organizations have a mission/vision/values statement. It may include concepts such as integrity, quality, respect, teamwork, customer service or innovation. Often companies prominently display their values on plaques, posters, business cards, marketing materials and annual reports.
Our personal values get us going every morning, help us choose the friends we’ll have, the relationships we’ll build, and, the groups and organizations that we’ll work for or lead. Our values influence every decision and move we make, even to the point of how we choose to make our decisions.
Defining Values-Based Leadership
Values-based leadership has been defined in many different ways, but is primarily defined as leading by example, doing the right thing for the right reasons and not compromising core principles. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Inc., remarked, "The only thing that works is management by values. Find people who are competent and really bright, but more importantly, people who care exactly about the same thing you care about."
But when values are ignored and people don’t live by them, they have no meaning. Even worse, the atmosphere becomes hypocritical and toxic, and employees may lose respect for both the organization and its leaders. It is one more reason people aren’t engaged with their work.
When values are incorporated into action, however, people feel purpose, direction and connection with their job and their organization. When employees connect to company values they have even more commitment, higher productivity, and better engagement with each other and customers or clients.
Leaders must take responsibility for their organization’s values and for making sure their employees share in those values. This is never easy. It’s one thing to agree with lofty words and concepts; it’s quite a bit different to turn them into action. Leaders, at all levels, are responsible, and need to be held accountable for, ensuring that employees not only know what the values are, but how to put them into action; how to behave and perform in day to day activities to live the organization’s values.
How do leaders put values into action? What steps does a leader need to take to clarify what is needed to lead with values?
Know your organization’s values: Think about what the organization’s values really mean to you and to your leadership style. You need to know which of your behaviors demonstrate those values.
If your organization’s beliefs and principles don’t have meaning for you, you won’t be able to make them meaningful for anyone else. Do your values, beliefs and principles mesh with those of your organization? In some cases they won’t. We don’t often see our personal set of values in terms of things like customer service or teamwork. But, the personal value of having respect for others does fit in with these organizational values.
It’s essential to make sure that an organization’s values translate into behavior and performance.
Walk the talk: Show your employees what the organizational values mean through your actions and behavior. People learn by observing their leaders. Bringing values to life is a behavioral issue. You’re a role model for your employees.
Actions speak louder than words. Most of your employees will follow your lead. No one is perfect, however. When problems or crises catch you off guard, your immediate reaction might not align with your personal or organizational value system. But you can take a step back, and ask yourself, "What guidance do our values provide for handling this situation?" You can make corrections to show that you are concerned with doing the right thing according to the values your organization promotes.
Teach values to your employees: You have to make it very clear that you expect your employees to live by your organization’s values. An effective way to teach values is through asking questions. When you ask people what they value, you can point them in the right direction. Asking questions can help people learn how to apply critical thinking skills on their own
Remove barriers to working with values: As a leader, you need to smooth the way for employees because there will always be obstacles and barriers to values-driven performance. You need to identify roadblocks, eliminate or minimize them, or show them how to deal with those that can’t be removed.
Reward and recognize those who live the values: Most leaders know that effective feedback must be specific and timely. It’s not really effective to tell someone that he or she is doing a great job. What does that mean? Instead, you can say something like, "I saw you go out of your way to help Mary yesterday in order to solve a problem. That’s a great example of our organizational value of teamwork (or customer service, or quality) in action. I appreciate what you did."
Smart leaders actively search out opportunities to catch people doing something right and thank them for doing it. Recognizing and rewarding behavior that’s in line with values is the single best way to ensure that it continues. Recognition for specific, desired behavior or performance is far more effective than more generic rewards, such as years of service or attendance.
Redirect those who aren’t living the values: This is one of the more difficult aspects of leading and managing. You must hold people accountable when they are not living the values. There will always be some who don’t want to get with the program, and you have be the one to deal with this problem or everyone suffers. If you don’t, you’ll lose credibility and the respect of others, and the organization and its customers will suffer.
Exploring the reasons they are doing what they are doing (or not doing) and why they choose not to live the values can provide valuable information and lead to a change in behavior. Some reasons employees may not be acting in line with your values may be:
- They don’t know why the values are important.
- They don’t know what they should be doing to live/work with the values.
- They think values are for other people, not them.
- They don’t get rewarded for living the values.
- Nothing happens when they don’t live the values.
- Quite simply, they don’t like the values and refuse to live them.
As a leader, this presents the opportunity to engage them in some meaningful conversation about what is important to them, how their personal values can align with the organization’s, and how their personal behavior is in conflict with organizational values.
The really difficult part is when disciplinary action is in order. Be specific and timely about what behaviors need to change. Redirecting people who are not living the values is one of the most important things a leader must do. To do so is to ensure your credibility and to reinforce the importance of values.
Every member of your workforce is responsible for values-driven business practices, but they look to you for examples of how the values translate into action. You set the tone. When you take a cavalier attitude to values or lose sight of them, even temporarily, you give your employees permission to do the same.
For a person to succeed in any organization, he or she has to understand what is really important to the company, its values. We do this by looking at what’s rewarded, observing how people get ahead and who gets promoted, and watching and listening to what senior managers do and how they spend their time. Unfortunately, too often what senior managers say and what they do are ambiguous or contradictory.
Why are values so important? Most of us would like to believe that what we are doing makes a difference to others and that our work is important. People aren’t motivated when they feel that what they are asked to do is worthless or contrary to their fundamental beliefs and values. Also, most of us also want to feel that we are valued as people, not just as employees. We want to be respected for who we are, not simply for what we do. We also respond positively to being around others who share similar beliefs and with whom we can build relationships.
As business leaders work to accomplish the organization’s goals, it’s important to remember that values endure. They are absolute, unchanging and non-negotiable. In a world where change can be dizzying, values offer us touchstones to define our actions, our decisions and the manner in which we treat others. These factors represent the fundamental basis upon which we shape our ability to lead.