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Values: Words on a Wall? Or Specific Behaviors to Turn Values into Action!

So often, an organization's values are just "words on a wall". That's because leaders haven't defined the specific behaviors that turn those values into action.

I have a quick challenge for you today. Here's Part 1: Take a look at your organization's values and then ask the next three people you meet to define one or two of those values. For example, if "Integrity" is one of your organization's values, ask each person to tell you how they define integrity. Write each person's definition down. Chances are, you'll find that although there may be similarities, no two definitions will be the same. That's because people understand words in very different ways based on their education, upbringing and experiences. To one person, integrity might mean "doing the right thing when no one is looking", and to another person, integrity might mean "doing what I say I am going to do".

Now, for Part Two of the challenge. Ask another couple of people to tell you the exact behaviors that "show" one of your organization's values. What I mean by this is what would a leader, or other person expect to see a person acting like (or conversely not acting like) so you could see the value of integrity in different work situations like a meeting, or working on a project with someone else, or in sending an email?

If you think Part One of the challenge was tricky, and that there was a lot of variation, I can guarantee you that Part Two is even trickier! Here's a few reasons why:

  1. Leaders who define what specific behaviors look like is not very common. Leaders "expect" and "assume" (incorrectly) that everyone knows what "acting with integrity" looks like.

  2. People don't like to be told what to do...and what not to do! Often, people call this micromanagement, and feel that they should be able to act however they want to...according to how they define words and values from their perspective!

  3. Defining exactly how people should act seems like it's for kids, not for adults! And it's assumed that adults have already learned how to act towards each other in work situations.

Because the specific behaviors that team members need to exhibit to act in accordance with organizational values are so rarely defined, many people act in ways that they may think shows those values, but it don't. For example, an organization's values may state that it values "respect for all people", yet in a meeting when someone shares an idea, others may roll their eyes, cross their arms and ridicule the person's idea. Those behaviors don't show the value of "respect for all people".

To solve this problem, Kind Leaders are very clear in defining what behaviors are allowed and what behaviors aren't, in specific situations such as meetings, working together as a team, and dealing with customers. A great example of this is a leader who clearly defined that their company value of honesty meant that sales people and customer service representatives needed to quote customers the exact date that their product would be ready, even when they knew that the customer would be unhappy with the lead time and that they company might not get the sale.

If you are a leader, and you haven't defined the specific behaviors that "show" your values so that people know how to act, and how not to, here is what you can do:

  1. Take a look at your organizational values and make a list of the specific behaviors that you expect to see for each value in different circumstances. Then make a list of those you don't expect to see!

  2. Share your list with your management team. Make sure that they understand what the specific behaviors look like. See if they have any to add for the behavior that show your organizations values...and for those that don't.

  3. Make sure that all team members in the organization know the specific behaviors. Create "Behavior Code" on your intranet. Train people on what the specific behaviors that are expect are, and which behaviors won't aren't acceptable. And what the consequences are for acting in ways, and showing unacceptable behaviors that controvert the organization's values will be.

  4. Follow through on consequences for unacceptable behaviors. That way team members will see that values aren't "just words on the wall".

  5. Make sure that you are "acting" in accordance with the behaviors that you have created and socialized! Because people "do what their leaders do" and "say what their leaders say". Keep reminding yourself that turning values into action starts with you!

I often say, (and am often quoted!): "Clarity is kindness".

When leaders are crystal clear on what actions people can take (and those they cannot), it's not micromanagement. It's the clarity that everyone needs to understand how to turn values from just "words on a wall" into action and positive organizational culture.

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