Culture can be a tough nut to crack. You can devote a long time to brand development, fully involving your employees and customers; carefully craft mission and vision statements; and post agency values all over the agency’s walls, in the employee policies manual and on your website. But this work is for naught if your claimed values are not expressed in daily practice.
In other words, if you talk about being one big happy family, but behave as if you are more dysfunctional than happy, toss that value. If you talk the big talk about diversity, but young employees keep leaving because they don’t see equity in promotion or opportunities, toss that value. If you worry about the company dog’s benefits more than you think about employee benefits, toss that… well you can see how erosion becomes endemic.
In the end, the values that feel most true are the ones you exhibit every day, as leaders, as team members, as individual employees. You need to bring real values into alignment with the agency’s professed values. Only then can you achieve the agency culture, and respect for that culture, that should be your objective.
The question of whether you succeed with values alignment will be answered by how you choose to close the gap between aspirational values and practiced values.
Psychologist and entrepreneur Dr. Cameron Sepah says that aspirational values tend to come from a company’s leaders. But if those values are not actually practiced, employees will take their cues from real practice, not the airy-fairy dream practices in the employee handbook. By their actions, leaders model reinforcing behaviors that can undercut or support cultural values. Positive reinforcement takes the form of reward, recognition and praise; negative reinforcement happens through failure to reward the most productive, promoting sycophants and yes-men, and handing out inequitable punishments for violations of stated policy.
Sepah calls these “trickle-down” behaviors—how leaders behave becomes how employees behave. What leaders emphasize through behaviors and practices takes precedence over what they say they expect. In short, the behaviors that an agency’s leaders actually value—not the ones they claim to believe—will dictate how employees form their own practices. The breakdown that can occur between stated values and real practices can get pretty ugly.
How can you create a culture that will self-regulate, and actually continue to move closer to your aspirational values?
- Openness – people are comfortable speaking about issues or problems, or recommending others for recognition; opportunities to succeed and advance are shared across the agency; leaders are transparent about profits, practices and progress against goals
- Reinforcement – reward values-driven behaviors; check egos at the door; forgive low-cost mistakes; recognize incremental individual improvement; celebrate successes and achievements
- Performance Integration – Give values-driven behavior as much weight as performance in employee assessments; give people clear goals to aim for; do goal-based performance check-ins
- Meaning/Purpose - help people find and pursue a career path; assign work that helps people make a difference; do work as a team that gives back to organizations and the community; seek new business prospects that will allow the agency to effect positive change
- Fun – make room for the agency to have fun—all work and no play deflates creativity and makes work a daily trudge instead of a forward march.
- Practice what you preach – none of the above can substitute for leaders modeling claimed values.
Show you are as dedicated to your agency’s values as you expect employees to be, and they will reward you by living up to those values. They may even become your values champions, becoming the next generation of agency leaders.
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