Many businesses experience a values gap. This gap is a result of several factors. Business as an institution is experiencing very low levels of trust from the public. This is due to a number of well-publicized scandals as well as the dominant belief that business is concerned only with money and profits. Even when executives want to live by a set of values, it is not easy. We do not always know what our values are, and sometimes they can conflict. Personal values can also conflict with company values. The concept that we can simply live our values, or walk the talk, is more complex than it seems.
Values are complicated. After we have engaged in some introspection about the way our lives are unfolding, they represent our desires and preferences as well as what is most important to us. Intrinsic values are our best and most thoughtful answers to why questions. And if we want to live more authentic lives, we must commit to an ongoing learning process. We need to be cognizant of our individual histories and their influence on what is important to us. We must pay attention to our stakeholders — those groups and individuals to whom we are connected — to accomplish what we want to achieve. And we need to acknowledge our aspirations and how they can change as we progress through life.
In our organizations, we need to pay more attention to the how of organizational values than to their actual content, even though content is important. Organizations are joint enterprises, and if their values are to be meaningful to their members, there must be participation in bringing the values to life every day.
There are four main aspects of the values-through-conversation (VTC) process: introspective values, historical values, connectedness values and aspirational values.
Executives can be role models by valuing reflection and introspection in their meetings. They can encourage people to experiment, to fail fast and often, and to learn from those failures. Simple techniques such as pre-mortems and after-action reviews can facilitate these ideas.
There need to be check-ins with external stakeholders to be sure that everyone is not just rationalizing what they want to happen. Ultimately, each of these ideas of VTC must be instilled in the organization’s everyday processes and systems. People can set aside time for reflection as a first step, but we need to value this reflection time and embed it in our conversations, discussions and processes.
History is a very important part of VTC, and it must be acknowledged and discussed. In some organizations there is a tendency toward historical revisionism to fit the facts of what we want to do now. History is too often told from the standpoint of those currently in charge. Yet our history affects our collective identity. The stories that we tell about our history — as well as those we can imagine for our future — all constrain and enable what we are capable of doing. Through history, VTC can celebrate achievements as well as yield insights for new aspirations.
Many times VTC is undertaken because of some external event that triggers the need to respond or that presents an opportunity that a company wants to proactively seize. Companies are connected to their stakeholders in whatever their chosen path for value creation. Companies cannot bridge the values gap without the support of their stakeholders in an atmosphere of trust. Sometimes this culture of trust must be declared, and sometimes it must be earned back after it has been broken. Many companies have customers who love them, who want their products and services because they improve the customers’ lives. We foster thriving and more-energizing workplaces by seeing the entire set of stakeholder relationships as able to accomplish more together than alone. These relationships are intertwined, and stakeholders must be engaged in a way that honors those interconnections.
Often companies restart or revise their values conversation because a new executive team takes over that has a different and often more challenging vision of what is possible. Aspiration makes a difference. When it is not a shared aspiration, however, the values process devolves into values-talk that is often separate from real action. Aspiration is a powerful force when it is fueled by passion and brings both focus and dedication to those who share it. In our experience, aspiration and inspiration go together in companies that have closed the values gap. By making aspiration a personal issue to all employees and stakeholders, the values are more likely to be realized.
This post is excerpted from Darden Professor R. Edward Freeman and Schulich School of Business Professor Ellen R. Auster’s book Bridging the Values Gap: How Authentic Organizations Bring Values to Life (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.). Please see its companion piece, “Mind the Values Gap — and Conquer It,” for actionable ideas to help professionals bridge the values gap so their organizations can be authentic.