Are Your Values Words on a Wall, or Do They Walk Down the Hall?

and on September 16, 2019

Maybe it’s because we’re of a certain generation, but we clearly remember a time walking through labyrinths of cubicles and seeing motivational posters on the walls. You know the ones we’re talking about, with the cliché phrases and inspirational photos. A picture of an eagle soaring, with an emphasized word like “Integrity” in giant, Times New Roman letters. And underneath, almost so small you had to press your nose against the poster to read, would be some sort of sentence about what that means. And that was how we talked about values in the workplace.

While the posters are a nostalgic thing of the past—and they are, so if you still have them in your office, it’s time to move on—the way we talk about values hasn’t evolved much. There have even been times when, before working with a new client, we’ve looked for a company’s values on its website, and they’re rarely more than a lone page of singular words buried where nobody would ever see it, unless they were specifically looking for it. And that’s even if the organization has its values posted on its website at all. So how do we change the conversation and the way people engage in our organizations?

The Recipe

Align Your Organization’s Values to Your Mission

Values should align to the work an organization does—and all the decisions made along the way. Most importantly, you want a purposeful and clearly defined mission that people can rally around. Purpose is so important, and yet it’s a blind spot that many leaders have.

“People today don’t want to just go through the motions, pay their dues, or work for someone else to just help them get what they want. Joy, meaning, and purpose are prerequisites for work, and when they are present, financial performance skyrockets. It turns out that purpose is a growth strategy.” —  Rich Berens, Co-Author of Blind Spots: Conquering the 5 Misconceptions That Hold Leaders Back

To make sure your mission is impactful and one your people care about, ask yourself:

  • Is the mission about making money or making a difference?
  • Can the common person look at the values and draw clear connections to the mission, or are they clichés that they’d find at any organization?
  • Are the values meaningful to your team and your organization’s customers?
  • Do they set you apart from your competitors? How?

What Works for Us

Root, like many organizations, has its own set of values that define and guide how we show up at work, both with our fellow Rootsters and with our client partners. But, if you’ve worked with us before, you know sometimes we do things a little differently around here, and how we celebrate our values reflects that.

Much like the Oscars, we have an annual celebration of our values, recognizing the best examples of our team—those who embody our values at an elite level. Each year, the whole organization takes part in a nomination process where individuals are identified and stories are shared of how they bring our values to life. Then at our annual event, appropriately named “The Rooties,” the winners are revealed in a celebration of their contributions and our company’s values.

There’s no financial incentive to win, and yet the Rooties is something our people get very excited about. What makes this work is that it is recognition that is meaningful to both the people who are recognized, and the people doing the recognizing.

Another way we appreciate and celebrate those who are living our values is through our Root Recognition tracker. This platform allows us to share stories of our values coming to life and recognize others in a meaningful and tangible way in the midst of our day-to-day hustling. The short version is that the values are valued and people see what they’re supposed to look, feel, and sound like.

Starting up your own “Emmy Awards for Values” may not be the difference-maker for you that it is at Root, but the point is to start thinking about what will work for your people—what’s meaningful to them—and then make it happen. Taking the time to celebrate people bringing your values to life is an important way to show that the business and leadership are committed to these shared values.

Identify Where Your Organizations is Succeeding (and Why) and Encountering Trouble (and Why)

If values guide the work we do and the decisions we make, then it would make sense to treat them with the same gravitas that we treat our P&L reports. We often look for ways to identify high performers for sales, margin, safety, and just about any other metric. We try to find ways to replicate that performance across the organization.

How much time does your organization spend celebrating and troubleshooting financials? How much time does your organization spend celebrating and troubleshooting values?

We believe that if we took that same rigor and applied it to highlighting the success stories of people living their organization’s values, and removing the barriers people face, we just might solve many of the engagement issues existing in the workplace today. Imagine a world where there was an ongoing dialogue about your organization’s values, and people knew what it looked like to live them out in their work. Which leads us to…

Get Clear on the Behaviors that Support Your Values  (and Those That Stand in the Way)

It’s one thing to say, “We value honesty.” It’s another to say, “We value honesty, and that means we confront the ugly truth and address our concerns directly, rather than through gossip.” The difference is in the behaviors. Brodie had the privilege of listening to author and researcher Brené Brown speak at a conference about the importance of operationalizing values into observable behaviors, and we couldn’t agree more. We recently worked with an organization that had completed a merger. They were bringing together their top 100 leaders to introduce a new set of values. When the values were introduced, there was a reserved but positive response. These leaders liked what they were seeing and hearing, but there was almost an air of “Okay, now what?”

The energy in the room fundamentally changed when it came to the subject of behaviors. One hundred of the best and brightest in an organization of scientists and engineers starting buzzing, as animated of a group as you’ve ever seen, as they deliberated on how each value showed up in the workplace. This energy was a product of inviting people into the process. These leaders were invited to play a role in defining the behaviors. They were active participants in shaping what their value-driven world should and could look like, and not just in a vacuum, but also with their peers. Each person was able to share their perspectives and opinions and use each other as an “alignment mirror”—that is, they could see how their view matched up with others.

When you crystalize what your values mean and how they show up, you change the game. And speaking of the game…

Get People in the Game and Sustain the Change: 4 Steps to Follow

Don’t let it be a one-and-done. Your culture is at stake! Look for ways to integrate values and behaviors into the everyday conversation—among everyone, not just the top leaders—and take a holistic view of your organization. You’ve already invested in identifying the behaviors that work for and against the values. Pay attention to the rest of the system. What policies or procedures don’t align? How are people incentivized to do the right (or wrong) thing? How do values play into one-on-ones, performance appraisals and the like? What sort of skill gaps exist that prevent people from executing the behaviors that support your values? What needs to happen in order to close them? So how do we do this?

  1. Use creative methods to show people what good (and bad) looks like.
    Give your people something memorable that will stick in their brains. At Root, we help our clients solve this challenge through a variety of means, including our Learning Map® experiences, cinematic storytelling, highly interactive workshops, comic books, and a whole array of other formats.
  2. Find ways to celebrate your values and the positive examples in your organization.
    Create the space for people to recognize each other (Who knows? You as a leader may even get recognized by your team!). Remember, as important as it is for leaders to recognize their teams in meaningful ways, it can’t only be from the top-down. It needs to be happening up, sideways, left, and right. It’s all about—say it with me now: Those. Stories. Want one more benefit? Those stories of your people bringing your organization’s values to life will give you a lot clearer understanding of how your values manifest themselves in your everyday work.
  3. Invite people into the process.
    Everyone needs to be involved—both in terms of recognition and in identifying and operationalizing the behaviors that support your values. Have your people help shape the world you’re asking them to live in.
  4. Your values need to become the lens through which you view everything.
    When something feels incongruent with your organization’s values, it’s fair to stop and ask, “Is this working for our values or against them?”

Exhausted yet? Don’t worry, because you’re not in this alone. Transforming your values from words on the wall into something you see come to life is a team effort. Your role is to put that stake in the ground in terms of what your organization stands for and create the conditions and culture where people can act in way that supports these beliefs.

And for heaven’s sake—ditch the posters.

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