Do a quick search for ‘company values’ and Google will render up more than 448 million results. This is such a huge business and leadership topic because company values are the unseen force that determines the health of a company.
So, with all of the resources and advice out there, why are so many companies plagued with a toxic culture?
Well, there is a very large elephant freely walking around in many organizations and it’s being chronically ignored.
In fact, some leaders put elaborate systems into place to insure that the elephant is never outed, though its presence is wreaking havoc every day.
A Values Mismatch
This proverbial elephant represents the mismatch between the stated company values and the everyday experience of employees, customers and vendors.
Values are very powerful because they shout to the world what is really important to us and they highlight our underlying “how” we will be in the world. This is true on a personal level and is equally true for business. Values clarify:
- How we will conduct business
- How we will relate to customers, vendors and employees
- How we will behave in the workplace
- How we collaborate and handle stress, conflict and obstacles
- How we stand out from the competition
- How the company culture and environment is shaped
Making decisions based on how we want to be in the world is a fantastic rubric that can be used to measure goals, initiatives and behavior, which is why experts encourage entrepreneurs and senior leaders to think about these things.
Unfortunately, when there is a mismatch between the ‘official’ company values and actual practices and experience, things get unhealthy over time.
Values Come from the Top…Period
Checklists and worksheets intended to help you clarify values won’t get you very far if there isn’t first some serious attention given to what is in the head and heart of the senior leaders in an organization. Regardless of what’s written in the employee handbook or posted on the break room wall, its the personal values of leadership that will override that list every time.
Clarifying values can’t just be a superficial or academic exercise, it has to actually mean something.
Sadly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a business owner or senior leader lament the state of their organization, blissfully unaware that the blame is squarely at their own feet. In fact, it is more the rule than the exception.
Are You Brave Enough?
The good news is that if you are the leader, you can turn things around if you are willing to gather your courage and do a few simple things.
Pay Attention to Your People
The first step to move towards health is to pay attention to what is actually going on in the company, by paying attention to your people. Here’s a simple little exercise you can do by turning the above list into a set of questions.
- How do we really conduct business?
- How do we really relate to customers, vendors and employees?
- How do we really behave in the workplace?
- How do we really collaborate and handle stress, conflict and obstacles?
- How do we really stand out from the competition?
- How is our company culture and environment…really?
So…how are you doing? Is the culture and behavior of your employees characterized by trust, openness, loyalty and care? Or does suspicion, fear, greed or distrust infest your organization?
These are sure clues that you have a values problem. And ten times out of ten, the reason is that these values are trickling down from the top of the organization or you have not done the work to make sure everyone is working from the same playbook.
If you’re really brave, and want the best feedback, you should ask your employees and customers to answer these questions too!
Own the Responsibility
The best thing you can do is to come clean with your people. If you see a discrepancy with what you want your culture to be and the reality, then be honest and own it.
I know this might be a horrifying thought, but remember the elephant? Everyone already knows it’s there! Values ooooze out of every part of our lives and we can’t really fake it. So, you might as well acknowledge it. You might be surprised at the amazing results a little authenticity garners.
Make Some Changes
Lastly, you need to have a good honest talk with yourself about what you are willing to change in order to get your organization healthy. You can start small, but it needs to be authentic.
Do you have a solid set of values that reflect the business owner or top leader? If you have never done the work to name the values you want to run your company, start here. Use the same questions, modified a bit:
- How do I want us to conduct business?
- How do I want us to relate to customers, vendors and employees?
- How do I want us to behave in the workplace?
- How do I want us to collaborate and handle stress, conflict and obstacles?
- How do I want us to stand out from the competition?
- How do I want us to our company culture and environment to feel?
Do the work. Set a mandate and mean it.
If who you really are doesn’t match up with who you want to be, you need to figure out how to bring them into alignment. Do you have an issue with suspicion or dishonesty? Do you know what you really want to guide this ship? Do others?
Of course, you must begin to model the values you want to see. This seems like a no-brainer, but too many people follow the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do school of leadership. That won’t work. You will achieve amazing loyalty and behavior when you become the kind of person you want as an employee.
Probably the most important change that has to happen is for you to set aside a time to get feedback from your employees and other stakeholders at regular intervals. Use the above questions as a starting point. Also, ask for accountability. We are all blind to our own issues and you likely got here because you didn’t have people who could be honest with you