Many years ago, I was involved in a project focused on the revitalization of a company’s values. In this project, the company’s leadership developed a values statement that they believed, and I concurred, represented the values of the individuals who worked for the company.
The values statement was warmly and enthusiastically received company-wide. The efforts of the company’s leadership to inform and deploy their values throughout the company earned them recognition as a trustworthy company beyond their industry.
This experience convinced me that values are a social mechanism for the purpose of uniting people around shared ideas or beliefs. Whether the idea is integrity, creativity, or some other quality, the idea provides people with meaning and purpose. When that idea is shared with others who also value it, a social context for their relationships is formed, enabling them to work, as a team, through obstacles and achieve higher levels of impact than they might have otherwise thought possible.
The values culture of a business is integral to the healthy functioning of human relationships within an organizational context. Unfortunately, too many organizations ignore this facet of leadership; they treat values as an ancillary exercise that is elective and marginal in impact.
The Outdated, Traditional Approach to Values
Values are ideas that identify what is important to us. In an organizational context, these ideas are intended to project a certain image about the company. Whether the value is being dependable or fun, the effect is to make a statement that describes what the company believes in or stands for. This is the traditional approach to values. They are iconic statements of identity.
For many people and organizations, this approach treats values as a historical artifact. Here’s what I mean: You go to a museum, and in the main hall, there is a life-size model of a Tyrannosaurus rex. You walk into a room called “The Hall of Values,” and the first thing you see is a frame with a magazine ad for “ACME Dynamite Company: Dependable Explosions Since 1904.” Then there is a statue of a man in a business suit and a sign that simply says, “Trust.” At the rear of the hall, there is a display of an auto assembly line from the 1950s with a sign that says, “Innovation.”
We see concepts applied to business as a way of distinguishing them from their competitors. We call this branding or marketing, of course. But we treat values in much the same way. They are like museum artifacts. Words like “trust,” “dependable,” and “integrity” signify a specific meaning; these words are recollections of a past time. With their historical meaning, they carry fixed images of the company that are intended to impress the values of the company on the consumer.
We know when there is a breakdown between the espoused values and reality when a company sells itself as trustworthy, dependable, and operating with the highest integrity, but in the morning newspaper, we read of the embezzlement of millions of dollars by a top executive. We know that the espoused values no longer command attention like they did in the past. This disconnect leads people to believe that the value words are hollow.
It may well be true that 99% of a company’s employees are trustworthy and dependable and have integrity. The moral failures of a few are thrust upon the many who remain behind to pick up the pieces of a tattered reputation. Values reduced to ad copy or a relic in the company museum set up the conditions for failure.
Approaching Values as Living History
Instead of values being treated as museum artifacts, values need to be living experiences that take on a life of their own. Fully realized values are not static museum displays; they are continued experiences within a company.
For example, I’ve heard people reminisce about the days at their company when it felt like one big family. They’ve made comments like, “We cared for each other like family. We knew each other’s spouses and kids. We got together to play softball in the spring and attend company picnics in the summer.”
If being a family is part of a company’s values, the company must create opportunities for this quality to be experienced regularly. For example, they can set up committees to raise money to help family members in need or organize picnics and other events.
If values matter, they will mean more when they are intentionally applied to the relationships and processes in the company. Values guide culture, build trust in relationships and strengthen people to make an impact.
Values 2.0-The Interaction Paradigm of Values
Values 1.0 are boilerplate ideas that serve some abstract function, as described earlier. They represent an idea that is meant to be read without interaction. These words become iconic representations of the company.
For example, for as long as I can remember, Coca-Cola has been referred to as “The Real Thing.” This values statement is an iconic label for the soft drink. Is the value of authenticity simply a marketing slogan or is this representative of the company itself? I couldn’t say; my purpose here is to show how a value concept can be used in a non-interactive manner. This was the basic approach to communication by companies throughout the twentieth century and, in many cases, continues today.
Values 2.0 are the ideas that give people a reason to engage, interact, and unite around a shared purpose of who they are and what their organization stands for. Today, this is the default approach to communication.
Interaction with the customer is the key to building a successful brand. It is also the key to changing the internal communication environment of organizations. These two approaches can be distinguished in this way:
- Values 1.0-Ideas, Icon, Irrelevance
- Values 2.0-Ideas, Interaction, Integration, Impact
Placed in the context of the Circle of Impact illustrated below, values serve an important role alongside clear purpose, a compelling vision, and a healthy organizational structure. Take a look:
Values matter at the most basic point of human interaction and increasingly in a business climate that requires greater interpersonal skills to meet complex demands. Values are the superglue that unites people for the work they must do. The heart of Values 2.0 is human interaction for action. I am not talking about lovely sentimental ideas that are printed on posters and hung on office walls. I am talking about the ideas of substance that support and guide people in their interactions.
Creating an Interactive Culture Based on Values
When The Cluetrain Manifesto, a work of business literature collaboratively authored by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, came out in 1999, it represented a transition that would come to mark the first decade of the twenty-first century.
The shift is captured in the first Cluetrain thesis: “Markets are conversations.”
Cluetrain introduced the idea of human interaction into the discussion about marketing and business, predicting the rise of the social media phenomenon. The book seems a bit obvious now, but in 1999, it was revolutionary in what it proposed.
A few years earlier, in 1994, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras published Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, one of the first books that took seriously the place of values in organizations. Collins and Porras make an insightful distinction between values and cultural practices. The difference is simple: Core values provide a social foundation for groups of people and organizations to change while preserving the integrity of the organization.
Cultural practices are those practices that have lost their reason for being, yet still, command allegiance as the historic traditions of the organization. These are situations where you might hear in a meeting, “Well, we’ve never done it that way.”
According to Collins and Porras, companies that are successful over time are successful because they are true to their core values. The distinction matters because leaders of organizations must push change at the cultural practices level to preserve their core values. This is illustrated here:
A basic question we must ask is, “How are values important to us?”
When Built to Last was written, the approach to values in business was primarily ethical and utilitarian, asking, “What are the boundaries of what is legal and what will not embarrass us?” This approach was inadequate then and remains so today. The complexity of organizational life has grown, and even as web-based transparency has grown, it is much easier to hide the unethical and illegal practices, and let ethics be a function of public relations.
Without genuine, authentic transparency, companies are really not in conversation with their constituents. A business today can lack real awareness and perception of how it is doing if it fails to recognize the role of values like transparency in its organizations.
Today, a business that is not utilizing Values 2.0 is behind the developmental curve. Values 2.0 is a strategic shift from a consumerist view to a more values-focused, relationship-centric organization.
Understanding the Nature of Interactive Values
How can we make values interactive so they are more than abstract concepts with sentimental personal meaning but little practical relevance? I see values as social constructs that function to unite people together. Let us call them “operational values.” These values are ones that are utilized, operationalized, deployed, and lived out in the operations of an organization. For example, if trust is a core value of a company, actions of trust would be ones like being transparent.
Values function to strengthen, support, guide, and protect relationships within a social context. These are the kind of core values that Collins and Porras describe in Built to Last. There are three human interaction functions within organizations that are enriched by that organization’s values:
- Communication in all its forms.
- Decision-making and its implementation.
- Evaluation of both people and company performance.
When values are utilized in an operational sense, they shift from being abstractions for promotion to practical beliefs that open up avenues of learning and discovery for meeting company goals. Social constructs are points of affinity that people share, such as a local sports team, family history, spiritual beliefs, a music group, or a coworker’s fight with cancer. The stronger the affinity and the more personal the connection, the deeper the values are.
When people connect around these social constructs, the values deepen and give purpose to the relationship. For organizations, these social connecting points provide an additional means to finding quality people for employment. The relationship starts with the introduction and deepens as values are identified. The relationship finds vitality and sustainability as purpose and vision develop.
From this development, effective leaders adapt their organizational structures to support the strengthening of the company’s social environment. This is how abstract values become operational values.
It is important that businesses understand what their values are. Not the boilerplate ideas of public relations materials, but rather the beliefs and attitudes that people have about the company that they share and that give them strength and hope.
Creating a Culture of Trust Through Shared Values
In a Values 1.0 world, values are treated as icons, symbolic emblems that have meaning, but little relevance. In a Values 2.0 world, leaders understand that to build their corporate culture around a clearly identified and embraced set of values provides the conditions for creating a culture of trust. Values are ideas that unify relationships and guide an organizational structure to create a culture of trust, as illustrated here:
Trust is earned by the integrity and impact of the organization. The culture of an organization is representative of all the people, not just senior leadership.
The ideal situation is for senior leaders to express respect down through the organizational chart, while employees express trust up through it. In each case, at the heart of this exchange is a set of values that are shared, mutually believed in, and that creates the unity that enables the company to collectively make a difference that matters.
The application of values is not the ultimate purpose of Values 2.0. It is rather a means to create a culture of trust that elevates the prominence of the social environment to a place that strengthens the organization. That is the long-range purpose of utilizing values as a means to enhance interaction and impact.
The key is to follow the line of thought from idea to interaction to integration to impact. This is a learning process, and the best learning is transformational.