We’ve been talking about the importance of values alignment for decades. Researchers have shown that where individual values are aligned with those of the organization, employees are happier, more engaged, loyal, more productive and so on. The correlation to performance and organizational success has been shown time and time again. We can all agree that values alignment is a worthy goal, but the challenge is how do we go about making it happen?

Part of the problem is organizations can’t, or haven’t, articulated their real values. Some have articulated values, but there’s a disconnect between what they espouse and what they live. It’s one thing to say you value people development or innovation or accountability. It’s another to actually demonstrate those values in your actions and behavior.

Some would suggest alignment is a top-down task, where you identify the values the organization deems important, then work to get everyone to embrace them. In my experience this rarely works. As Jim Collins noted, “you cannot “set” organizational values, you can only discover them. Nor can you “install” new core values into people. Core values are not something people “buy in” to. People must be predisposed to holding them.”

One way to define organizational values is to assess those of the individuals. Theoretically, organizational values are the sum of the values of the individuals in the organization, but its not a democratic accounting. Some individuals, like leaders, are more influential than others and their values hold greater sway in the accounting.

Values and culture are closely aligned. Values drive culture because they drive the decisions, actions and behaviors that ultimately become the “norms” of the organization. Want to know what an organization values? Look at how they make decisions, how they treat their customers, their employees. Look at the language they use, what they measure, the rules, processes and protocols.

Identifying Values

Start with what you think you value and look for proof

Even though there’s often a disconnect between real and espoused values, if you have espoused values, it makes sense to use them in your discovery process. Begin by making a list of these values, then add a second column where you’ll note evidence. For example, if your company claims Accountability as a core value, look for examples of how this plays out in the day-to-day. Look for examples of how people are held accountable for their actions, examples of honesty and transparency in action. Look at the decisions and actions of leaders and the communication of those decisions. Look up the definition of accountability and rate decisions accordingly.

Completing this task will give you an idea of which values are real and which ones perhaps fit more into the “wanna be” category. If you discover a disconnect between what the organization says it values and how it behaves, it may be that the claimed value is not actually a real value. On the other hand, it may be that the value is real in the sense that organizational leaders truly feel the value is important, but there’s a disconnect between belief and action.

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at an example. Let’s say the organization claims People Development as a core value, but when you look for evidence, you can’t find very many examples of how this value is demonstrated. There is virtually no movement from job to job, few promotions outside executive ranks and the training budget seems to get smaller and smaller every year.

So, you do the evidence-based values assessment and share the results with the leadership team. Leaders are genuinely surprised to see the disconnect because they truly felt they were committed to employee development. Rather than simply pointing out the the disconnect, you also offer helpful suggestions for how the organization might “walk the talk” and live their values.

For example, imagine two companies claiming Employee Development as a core value. Both companies are under the same financial constraints and have been asked to reduce training costs. Organization A chooses to cut training staff, eliminate classes and call it good.

Organization B decides to take a broader view and look for innovative ways to uphold their commitment and stay within the budget constraints. They put together a team of employees to generate ideas, do the research and come up with recommendations. A decision is made to shift primary responsibility for Training and Development from the Training department to employees. When employees are empowered to take control of their own training and development, they are able to eliminate some of the training department overhead. Each employee is given a stipend (half of the previous per person expenditure) and can spend that money as they see fit. Mentoring, apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs are also put in place. Formal training is supplemented by Lunch and Learn and other informal programs. In the end, the company not only demonstrates its commitment to employee development, but also creates a less expensive, more effective and more sustainable system.

Look inside leaders and influencers

As we said before, organizational values are the sum of the values of the individuals in the organization, with leaders and influencers carrying the most weight. Typical values assessments begin by first surveying those who are most influential. Time and money permitting, you’d like to survey the entire population, but often this is impractical, particularly in the beginning.

There are a number of tools you can use for assessing values. Depending on the nature of the project, I use Values Technology’s Hall-Tonna assessment, The Barrett Values Model, and TTI’s Driving Forces. The Base tool by Saberr also measures values and uses them to help optimize teams.

The results of these assessments show you not only the values of a given individual, but enable you to look at shared values across a team or organization. Depending on the quality of the visuals, you’re able to quickly identify alignment concerns.

Now that we’ve identified potential alignment issues, what now?

New people new values?

If organizational values are the sum of individual values, does that mean the only way to change organizational values is to change out the people, in particular those with the most influence, i.e. leaders? Yes and No. Finding people who naturally embody the values you’re going after is far more effective than expecting people with different values to suddenly “see the light.” But it’s not as black and white as that. It’s not black and white because values are not black and white.

Values change as we mature, evolve and grow. We mature, evolve and grow by broadening our purview, by experiencing other people, cultures and contexts. One could argue then, that if we provide individuals with exposure to other people, cultures, and contexts, and opportunities for growth, that exposure and experience might positively effect values development and alignment.

All communities in all places at all times manifest their own view of reality in what they do. The entire culture reflects the contemporary model of reality. We are what we know. And when the body of knowledge changes, so do we.

James Burke – The Day the Universe Changed

I’m a big fan of strategically placing values-aligned leaders in order to influence culture change. But even if you could do a blanket swap out of all the people who didn’t share the core values, I’m not sure the results would be optimal. Think about it from a cultural change view. You can’t change a culture overnight because culture is all about “norms” and it takes awhile to develop new norms.

Is values diversity good or bad?

Cognitive diversity is key to effective problem solving and is particularly important where cross-functional teams are working on complex problems. As we purposefully staff teams to ensure there is ample cognitive diversity, should we look to do the same for values? Is values diversity a good thing or do we want the team to all share the same values?

Although diversity is good in most respects, differences in core values can easily create friction and conflict. Plus, when there are common values, people tend to trust each other and communicate more openly and honestly. This is perhaps one of the biggest payoffs and likely accounts for performance improvements and positive outcomes typically ascribed to values alignment.

Although this is an area I continue to sort through, my sense is you want maximum cognitive diversity and minimal values diversity. The two are definitely related and if you don’t have an open and trusting environment (which typically comes as a result of shared values), you’re not likely to be able to make the most of cognitive diversity.

Values Prioritization

There is only x amount of energy or bandwidth within an organization (or an individual for that matter) and there are only so many things we can focus on or set as priorities. Values assessment is simply understanding an individual’s top priorities. The healthiest organizations and the most engaged individuals exist where there is a match amongst the top priority values.

Accountability may not be a priority value for me, in other words there may be some things that are more important like learning or belonging or making a difference, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the importance or that I have to stretch to adhere to it. Since Accountability is kind of a mom and apple pie sort of value, let’s look at another example – Continuous innovation. If a focus on continuous innovation is a top value for the majority of the group and it ranks low amongst my priorities, that focus, may over time, become a bit draining for me. Where some people would be energized by a focus on continuous innovation, I may feel exactly the opposite. Conversely, a focus on people development or learning may energize me, but drain someone else.

Translate Values Into Actions

Values influence not only how we act in a given situation but also what we focus on. Imagine values as a filter. Because my top value is learning, I will “see” learning opportunities where others who don’t share that value may not. I may judge the success or failure of a project or event based on what was learned. Someone with a priority value of Achievement or Financial Gain will filter for different opportunities and judge the same project or event differently.

Smart organizations recognize how values impact decisions and provide employees with the tools and information they need to understand biases and make good choices. They ensure that values are more than just lofty statements or concepts. They translate values into actions and show people what a commitment to People Development or Continuous Innovation looks like in day-to-day decisions and actions.

Odd man out

What if you’re the odd man or woman in an organization whose top values are different from the top values of the rest of the team? Chances are it would be a frustrating experience. Your view of things, your initial reaction to things, your default mode would always be different and at odds with those of your teammates. That’s an uncomfortable position that would likely be emotionally draining over time.

I’m often asked what to do in a situation where we discover values alignment issues such as this. If I’m working with an organization, we’d first talk about how this lack of alignment has played out thus far. Typically there are examples of problems and frustrations that were difficult to explain or resolve, that now make sense.

Then we’d discuss the individual and the type of job and organizational setting where they’d likely feel most engaged. If the organization is large enough and there are other areas where the values might be aligned, we’ll discuss possible transfer. Where those opportunities don’t exist, we’ll let the employee decide what he or she wants to do. In most cases they choose to seek other opportunities. There is often a sense of relief that comes from finally having an explanation for why things were so frustrating. The individual now better understands themselves and where they work best and often feels empowered to make a change.

All about tolerance

One of the things we pay close attention to when staffing teams is tolerance. A person’s values may not be 100% aligned, but if they show high tolerance for people who are different from them, then we’re comfortable they can work well in a team. Interestingly we’ve found tolerance comes into play in several key areas of leadership. The most effective leaders have a high tolerance factor, while the more autocratic leaders have a low tolerance.

Where there is lack of alignment from a values perspective, one can use the tolerance factor to help determine the best course of action.

Values Evolution

We know from experience that the best way to increase tolerance is to give employees opportunities to work with different kinds of people in safe, trusting environments. When you are able to focus on commonalities (the work, shared vision, shared purpose) and learn more about the individual by working side by side with them, the more open and tolerant you’re likely to become.

Individual values grow and change over time. As we become more comfortable with ourselves and with our situations, the more likely we are to grow and expand how we see the world and our place in it. These changes will ultimately be reflected in our values.

Part II of this series will address personal growth and values evolution in more detail.