Does this sound familiar? Your company went through an exercise to draft a vision, mission, and a set of values that was to define its purpose and its culture. With plenty of fanfare, the statements were distributed to all employees and then posted in prominent places throughout the office and/or plant. Meanwhile, nothing has really changed. In fact, all around you are examples of behavior that make a mockery of the stated values, and yet there are no repercussions. Pretty quickly it becomes clear that the exercise was mostly just one for show, with little to no relevance to your daily work life.
More and more companies are beginning to realize the importance of articulating a clear set of values that they intend to drive organizational culture, and by extension, behavior. However, all too often these statements of values lack any real traction. Instead, they exist only as an abstract concept, memorialized on some beautifully framed posters in the corporate home office or in the boardroom. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most common is the lack of any real sense of accountability around the stated values.
Define Behaviors Clearly
So how do you create accountability in an area that can feel so abstract? In this article, I’ll offer three suggestions that can help you achieve this goal; but before I do so, another point needs to be made. In previous articles, I’ve talked about the importance of explaining our values in terms of the observable behaviors they prescribe. For example, rather than simply saying “integrity,” we might describe that “integrity means doing the right thing, every time, even when it’s to our own detriment.” We might even add a few more statements describing what acting with integrity looks like. The more clearly we describe the behavior we want to promote, the easier it will be to create accountability for living up to this standard.
It’s often said that the behavior we “tolerate” is a pretty good indicator of the real values in an organization. Nearly every company I’ve ever worked with needs to fire someone. I don’t mean that to sound quite as harsh as it does, but quite simply, almost every company has at least one person who is such a complete violation of everything the company says is important, but has been allowed to stay. Often, they’re a salesperson who produces lots of business or who has many important client relationships. Management is afraid to deal with the behavior because of the fear of lost production or client retention, and yet their failure to act sends an unmistakably clear message to the rest of the staff: values matter here, unless you’re a big producer. Letting someone like this go demonstrates in no uncertain terms that you’re serious about the values you believe in. (And by the way, in nearly every circumstance I’ve seen, the feared lost business that was the excuse for inaction never actually materialized once the person was terminated.)
The second suggestion for creating accountability is the make sure that your values are a part of the performance review system. It’s interesting to see how few organizations do this. We say that acting in accordance with our values is critical, and yet when it comes time to discuss performance, it’s nowhere to be found in the conversation. Obviously, there are many other things that also need to be discussed, but at least somewhere there should be a discussion about how well the person is doing in modeling the core values and what they can do to improve. Even better would be to have specific goals for these issues and some small portion of compensation tied to it. Regardless of how far you go here, notice that my earlier comments about describing the expected behaviors clearly are a prerequisite to being able to include them in a performance review. How can I talk about someone’s performance if I’ve never clearly explained what I’m looking for?
A third way of creating accountability around our values is to use surveys to get feedback from the “outside world.” In my former company, we had a list of 30 behaviors (known as our Fundamentals) that were the foundation of our culture. To help hold ourselves accountable for our performance on them, we created an annual survey that we used to send to our customers, to our vendors, and to our own employees. For each of our 30 Fundamentals, the survey described in a sentence what it would look like to behave in a way that’s consistent with the named value. The respondents were asked to describe whether, in their observation, we “almost always, usually, sometimes, seldom, or never” behaved this way.
Not only was the survey a great way to hold ourselves accountable, but it was also a great opportunity for continuous improvement. Each year, we could look at the scores, identify our weakest areas, work on improving them, and then see if the following year’s survey results reflected that improvement.
Here’s the bottom line: unless you demonstrate to yourselves and the world that you’re serious about values by creating accountability for your behavior, you’re just conducting a meaningless exercise that has no relevance to your people on a day-to-day basis.
David Friedman is the former President of RSI, an award-winning employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm in the Philadelphia area. The author of Fundamentally Different: building a culture of success through organizational values, Friedman is a sought-after consultant, guest speaker and seminar leader on organizational culture, leadership, and values.