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Dennis F. Haley

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Health Care

Are Values Back in Vogue?

Eight reasons why companies are rejecting cynicism and remembering who they are.

Published: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 - 16:54

(Academy Leadership Publishing: King of Prussia, PA) -- When news headlines trumpet story after story about fiscal mismanagement, unchecked greed, massive bankruptcies, and rampant downsizing, it’s hard to believe there’s any good news about the business world. Indeed, it’s almost impossible not to conclude that our nation’s decision makers have lost their way. But despite the turmoil that’s recently rocked corporate America—or perhaps because of it—a growing number of companies are suddenly remembering who they are.

That’s right. There’s a definite trend in the corporate world to return to the basics of good business. This encouraging change in attitude is described in my new book, The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010). Through personable case studies and discussion, the book explains how leaders are realizing that consistently putting short-term results and performance measures over long-term adherence to corporate purpose and values just doesn’t work. It eventually backfires.

What does work is identifying a set of company values and making sure everyone operates by them—no matter what. 

As a former officer in the U.S. Navy and a business consultant for more than 25 years, I've experienced first-hand the lessons described in The Core Values Compass. Indeed, a commitment to a strong set of values is the principle my consulting firm explores with and teaches to clients. 

Between the covers of The Core Compass, I invite readers to walk alongside Guy Cedrick, a young marketing executive who finds his authority questioned and his priorities put to the test after his company undergoes a difficult merger.

In a new corporate culture that pays only lip service to its stated values—i.e., respect, integrity, communication, and excellence—Guy must decide whether it’s more important to meet short-term deadlines at any cost or maintain alignment and accountability, even if that means putting his own position on the line. The tactics he employs and the lessons he learns will resonate with leaders in all positions and, ultimately, with entire organizations.

During the book's research phase, I discovered that when companies truly put their values front and center—and when employees passionately espouse them rather than rolling their eyes and making snide comments—the organizations are more likely to survive economic hardship and change. 

Ready to revitalize your company’s purpose, policies, and practices? Then read on to learn how embracing a set of core values can change the way your company runs.

Core values instill a sense of purpose that works like performance rocket fuel. It’s true; inner motivation based on strong values can do what no amount of professional development or department overhauls ever will. Think about it this way: During the Revolutionary War, American colonists fought against a larger, better-equipped, and better-trained British military force. Why did they emerge victorious? Among other reasons, the colonists were a group of individuals motivated and unified by a shared cause, while the British (many of them mercenaries) were fighting a war in which they had no personal stake.

Just as those early U.S. soldiers were spurred on by a desire for liberty and a love of their fledgling country, values-driven companies will push harder and farther than their counterparts that lack purpose. People crave and thrive on work that’s meaningful. They need a sense of purpose, a cause bigger than themselves. That’s a much more powerful motivator than money. If you give your organization purpose and meaning through core values, your employees will motivate themselves.”

Core values create consistency, which in turn breeds accountability. If you’ve ever worked at a company with no clear-cut values, you know how tough it is to hold people accountable. Employees frequently don’t do what they’re “supposed” to do—because they don’t know what that is. No one has ever made it clear that it’s more important to, say, meet a longtime customer’s request than to adhere to a strict budget. (Or, as is often the case, the rules change from day to day.) So when someone makes the wrong decision and ends up losing a customer—well, it’s pretty hard to hold him accountable.

Values make it clear exactly when the ball was dropped. It’s easier to hold people accountable when there’s a set of values-driven rules to hold them accountable to. For a variety of reasons, people in organizations with established values tend to hold themselves accountable.

Decision making is simplified. Everything comes down to: “This either supports our values, or it doesn’t.” Establishing a set of core values cuts down on equivocation, excuses, and those “yes, but…” rationalizations. True, life’s not all black and white, and sometimes it’s genuinely tough to know the right thing to do. Nevertheless, do your co-workers (or even you) try to test boundaries, cut corners, or operate in an ethically fuzzy area simply because they can? If descriptions of Enron-like behavior are too close for comfort, establishing and sticking to organizational values can be a game changer.

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to see leaders back-dating documents or low-balling prices to get a step or two ahead. For the short term, at least, those behaviors might be allowed or even condoned because of the results they produce. But we all know that in the end, they bring trouble. However, if your organization’s decisions are guided first and foremost by values, people will be less tempted to make these kinds of "mistakes." They’ll know exactly what the acceptable paths are. If they want to stick around, they’ll follow them.  

Core values grease the gears and boost productivity. In much the same way as they simplify decision making, putting a set of core values in place will streamline your organization’s processes and procedures. If your team is comprised of 15 individuals, chances are they have 15 different ways of communicating. That can mean misunderstandings, lost time, and unnecessary work. However, that all changes when communication becomes a core value, and everyone agrees on what that looks like in action.

How much time is lost in your organization just because people have different priorities and ways of approaching tasks? If someone gave you an exact answer, I’m betting the number of minutes would shock you. Defining your values will increase efficiency and boost performance because everyone will be on the same page. Without alignment, though, focus is much harder to achieve.

Core values facilitate employee ownership. If at various points in your life you’ve rented an apartment and owned a home, you know there’s a world of difference between the two. In an apartment, the buck rarely stops with the renter. There’s a building superintendent to fix what’s broken, and if the floors get a little scuffed, well… they’re not yours. But when you’re paying a mortgage, you’re responsible for anything that breaks—and you’re going to be a lot more diligent in terms of maintenance.

The same thing goes for your employees. If someone’s job is just a paycheck to her, she’ll take care of her responsibilities but won’t go beyond the call of duty. However, when employees believe they have a personal stake in the company’s culture and future, they’ll work with more heart and soul. They’ll hold themselves accountable. They’ll genuinely care about where their organization is headed because they’re interested in its future and reputation, not just in collecting a paycheck.

Core values align and unify people rather than dividing them. When a team’s only governing structure is, “This project must be done by next Tuesday,” there’s a lot of leeway as to the “how.” In such an environment, the self-centered, the power-hungry, the divas, and the bullies can all thrive. You know who these people are: They get the job done, but their methods are divisive, their attitudes are negative, and they’re really in it only for No. 1. Are they really the ones you want propelling your organization?

When companies adopt core values, everyone must agree on what they mean and how they’ll look in action. This sort of consensus puts everyone on an equal footing in a way that transcends position and hierarchy. It ensures mutual courtesy and respect. Essentially, core values facilitate a “one for all” mentality instead of a “one vs. all” because hidden agendas and petty power plays can’t thrive.”

People who don’t “fit” are weeded out. Despite a company’s best efforts to incorporate purpose and values into its culture, there will inevitably be dissenters who refuse to adjust their behaviors. Maybe it’s the hotshot designer who thinks his talent places him above the rules (like the Dwight character in my book) or the disparaging sales manager who derides your company’s values as “touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo.” The oft-painful bottom line is this: These individuals must go because their cynicism and uncooperativeness undermine the purpose and effectiveness of the whole organization.

Employees either buy into core values or they don’t, and if they don’t, they have to leave. There’s no middle ground here; everyone must shape up or ship out because those who aren’t living the values are like poison. Their negativity and rule-breaking will inevitably disillusion others. Fortunately, it usually doesn’t take long for these values-saboteurs to make themselves obvious. If you give them a chance to change their behaviors and they don’t take it, you’ve got to stick to your values and send them packing.

Along those lines, having a set of core values makes it easier to hire the right people. Even the world’s most talented project manager will still bring you down if he undermines values, so remember: Hire values; train talent. Eventually, you’ll have a company in which everyone shares the same general motivations and values.

People respect their leaders and each other. Almost all of us have had at least one “bad” boss at some point or another—and universally, it’s an experience we’d rather not repeat. So what exactly makes someone a bad boss? Most often it’s that, for whatever reason (e.g., playing favorites, poor communication, rudeness, a lack of integrity), she is not respected by team members. In other words, this isn’t someone to whom employees will ever lend their wholehearted support.

I can almost guarantee that when a company truly lives by its values, its leaders will be respected. Espoused values require leaders at all levels to be clear, consistent, credible, and constructive. Plus, because living by core values breeds trust, employees know that their leaders—and indeed, all their co-workers—have their best interests at heart. This creates a work environment of mutual courtesy and respect.

In a turbulent environment of corporate fraud, scandal, and economic difficulty, it’s tempting to hide behind a shield of cynicism when core values are mentioned. I’ll be the first to admit that the process of identifying your organization’s core values and then reorganizing everyone around them isn’t easy. More than that, even, the job of focusing and aligning behaviors with values never ends.

Let me be clear, though: Putting values over profit, numbers, and results is worth it. Alignment and accountability can never be overrated, and they’ll see you through to the end.

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About The Author

Dennis F. Haley’s default image

Dennis F. Haley

Dennis Haley had more than 30 years of experience studying and practicing leadership before founding Academy Leadership. A 1967 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, Haley served on the U.S.S. Long Beach, CGN9, as a Nuclear Engineer.

Following a tour of duty in Vietnam, Haley returned to Pennsylvania and joined the family business, eventually transforming it from a five-man operation to multimillion dollar HVAC company with 40,000 customers. When the company was sold to a public utility in 1997, he turned his leadership initiatives towards helping others to become successful leaders, holding senior positions in the business world.