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Are your company values just plain BS?

And just to clarify - by BS we mean ‘Below Standard’. Sadly though, many would perhaps be correct to have assumed what may have popped to mind first.

All too often the following sort of conversation seems to unfold with regards to values and their use:

Client: “We are very attached to our values, they mean a great deal to us and we’d like to incorporate them solidly into this programme.”

Consultant (pad and pen at the ready): “That’s great, no problem at all, what are they?”

Client: “Ahhhh, well let me see, there’s the one about integrity, another about customer experience, ahhhhh, I think there’s 6 or 7 of them all up, how about I just email them to you after this meeting, is that OK?

Values, what values?

It’s often because the words and fancy graphics festooning the office meeting rooms and mouse pads don’t actually match the real world behaviours that are occurring day to day.

Cognitive Dissonance can be the result. A useful definition and some thoughts on the matter from an eminent psychologist in the field of cognitive dissonance are of use here:

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort / psychological stress experienced by trying to hold simultaneously two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person performing an action that contradicts beliefs, ideals, and values, or when confronted with new information that contradicts those beliefs, ideals, and values.

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957),Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to mentally function in the real world. A person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance. This is done by making changes to justify their stressful behavior, either by adding new parts to the cognition causing the psychological dissonance, or by actively avoiding social situations and/or contradictory information likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.(I)

If values are to be written up and plastered upon the walls, and people are also expected to live them, then they should be in accord with actual workplace behaviours and the culture that’s actually lived. Real values are lived and not just wriiten.

Well-intentioned slogans and phrases cooked up in workshops and off-sites may hit the mark, but all too often they don’t. They may paint a picture of theoretically what is aspired to by the organisation (or sometimes let’s be honest, just the latest management book or fad), but miss what can actually be achieved based on real-word behaviours at work.

Cultures can also subtly vary from team to team, department to department based upon the behavioural chemistry that’s actually at play within each part of the organisation, as distinct from the organisation as a whole.

That often mentioned “the way we do things around here”is not necessarily a cookie cutter formula from one team to another. Sub teams have their own cultures.

It’s important therefore to take stock of what behaviours are occurring at work; what behaviours are valued by the team and what can be realistically adapted to properly marry aspiration to outcomes.

To do this before constructing elaborate value systems can save a lot of grief and the internal discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Here are 3 simple steps:

1 - Measure the behavioural clusters that actually exist at work.

2 - Ascertain what behaviours are solidly entrenched, and those that may realistically be adapted or managed if required.

3 - Create a more appropriate set of values that are actually anchored in what’s really there, and / or what can realistically be adapted to over time.

On numerous occasions we have used the Belbin Model and its valuable profiles and reports to paint a behavioural picture of the team cultures that really exist at work.

This is done initially by using individual profiles based on self-perception, and importantly also with 360-degree Observer feedback to give an accurate and evidence-based snapshot of personal behavioural preferences at work.

This data then reliably informs “Team Reports” that illustrate the behavioural chemistry at play within each team, and also for the total team as a “Group Report”.

Such insights help to paint a picture of what behaviours are occurring, how they play out across the organisational culture and within sub-team cultures.

At the tail end of a Belbin session that has explained the implications of these individual and team reports, people can then be engaged in creating their own sets of values that realistically echo what’s there and what can be realistically adapted to.

Such team values, anchored in evidence based insight, can then genuinely link to and resonate with actual behavioural culture that is at play in the workplace.

Values by the people, for the people and making certain that they are not B.S.

(I) Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

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