Values live in the realm of the invisible therefore many of us struggle to get the employees (and ourselves) to become the living example of our stated values. Executives are often discouraged several months after a strategy session when they realize that the work of designing a culture based on values is more difficult than anticipated.
Building a values-based culture begins with two requirements: Communication and capacity.
Conscious and Deliberate Communication
The first step to bringing the invisible to life is through conscious and deliberate communication. For example, look at any healthcare organization and you will see stated values such as compassion, empathy, care, and so on. It’s easy to make a statement “Our top value is compassion,” but much more difficult to describe and identify.
Stating the corporate values is an event. Living the corporate values is a process. That process starts with deliberate and conscious communication.
In a retreat with a healthcare organization, I recently asked these questions: “How do you know what compassion looks like? What does it feel like? What are the barriers to compassion? Now that you have connected the dots, can you share a story of when you showed compassion? Can you identify the barriers that keep you from living the value?”
Whether the value is compassion, integrity or public safety, if you truly want employees to embody and embrace that value, it needs to be part of the corporate conversation on a daily basis. If the value is not part of the conversation there will very little awareness around the subject, and therefore a lack of alignment to that value.
For example, at Kraft Foods where I worked for over twenty years, “safety” was not just in the policy manual and an OSHA requirement, it was part of the conversation every day. The organization engaged workers to think about safety by initiating competitions for creating the best safety slogan and offering steak dinners after one million hours of no lost time accidents. Policy and actions were aligned with the conversation. Workers were required to wear safety glasses during sanitation and earplugs during production.
“To embody any value, you first have to elevate the awareness about the value.”
The point is that if you have a stated value such as worker safety on your walls and in your policy manual, but there’s no conversation about safety in the halls, workers won’t develop safe habits. To embody any value, you first have to elevate the awareness about the value. You do this through conscious and deliberate communication so that everyone understands and can describe the value when they see it.
In our fast-paced world of instant access to communication and unrealistic expectations to do more with less, we lose capacity without even recognizing it. The question we must ask is this: Do we have the capacity to live our values? First is the personal capacity, and second is the organization’s capacity.
When your own boat has a leak, you are in survival mode and have little to give to someone else. For those in emergency services such as first responders and healthcare professionals, the questions I ask are these: Are you well rested? Are your own needs taken care of? Is your personal life in order? Do you have the stamina when more is required?
When our personal capacity is compromised we become misaligned to the company values. For example, think about how the lack of sleep in healthcare and emergency workers compromises patient safety or public safety.
“Our capacity can grow or diminish, and either way, the results compound over time.”
Secondly, does the system (your organization) support individual efforts to maintain capacity? Are there enough resources for employees to plug the leak in the boat? Are there temporary relief workers to allow adequate downtime for weary workers? (Research suggests that healthcare environments that supply adequate staffing have better nurse outcomes and less burnout.)
Are there quiet rooms for employees to take a needed break if they are required to be in emergency mode? Does the organization provide adequate technology, equipment, and other resources to maximize employee effectiveness or are employees required to make do because of the budget? If organizations do not recognize the environmental role they play in providing the capacity, they are misaligned from the beginning.
Using healthcare again as an example: Patient safety is one of the values, yet nurses are asked to work 12 hour days and overtime. That’s why UPHS-Marquette nurses went on strike. The current culture prevents them from the capacity to deliver on the promise of patient-safety.
In the industry of Public Safety, 911 Telecommunicators are expected to work with high-drama and maintain the professionalism and judgment of a first responder, yet the workers are classified as office and administrative support. Until the dispatcher role is reclassified, there will be less requirement for training and thus put the public’s safety at risk.
There are many internal and external cultural barriers to both communication and capacity. External barriers include the work environment, unrealistic demands, and lack of resources. Internal barriers consist of our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and the desire for self-development. Building a values-based culture requires the right organizational structures as well as dedication by the individuals within the organization.
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