Many businesses have values statements, but do they really put them to use?
“I think we have a values statement. Isn’t it that thing hanging on the wall over there?”
Such is the fate of most values statements. Describing the statement as “window dressing” is too kind; it implies that the statement might actually be seen from a window.
Most organizations have either a mission or a vision statement. Some even have both. However, fewer organizations have a values statement. A values statement describes how people should behave in an organization. Among other things, a values statement may discuss responsibility, equality, respect, safety, diversity, accountability and honesty.
Unfortunately, most values statements are never connected to an organization’s productivity. As a result, values statements tend to be little more than framed pieces of paper hung on a wall; at least until such time as an employee acts contrary to the organization’s values. Then, the values statement is trotted back into service to justify disciplinary action.
Unfortunately, the damage has already been done. If your values statement is only referenced when there are problems, it is not being used productively.
Moving up the ladder a rung or two, some organizations have learned how to use a values statement in order to forestall ethical lapses. The values statement as a preventative mechanism is the most advanced form of implementation taken by most organizations. It informs organizational culture. While this is praiseworthy, there are ways that leaders can use a values statement to empower employee decision making.
It all comes down to one simple notion: when employees are aware of their ethical guidelines, they make better decisions. It is a commonsense idea that is remarkably rare in practice. This is due to the erroneous presumption that staff may, through a mysterious osmosis-like process, internalize these unstated values. Osmosis, as it turns out, works remarkably well for plants. Ethics are not plants.
A values statement, if used effectively, enables the right kind of risk taking. Good leaders want to empower senior managers to take risks. However, risks have consequences. While decision makers may not anticipate all consequences all of the time, they should not make decisions contrary to the organization’s values. When this happens, a wrong decision goes from being a valuable lesson to a damaging symbol of cultural and leadership failure.
Most senior managers are quite aware of this fact, even if they do not know what the organization’s values actually are. The awareness of the damage caused by ethical lapses is a fundamentally good thing. Unfortunately, if the awareness ends there, it stifles smart risk taking.
If senior managers are unaware of the ethical context within which they operate, fear will cause them to defer to the most gutless and unimaginative decisions. Your productivity and innovation will dwindle.
A values statement protects the organization, however, it should also empower employee decision-making by illuminating an ethical safe zone. This shifts the locus of decision-making from fear of the unknown to informed risks.
It is time to take your values statement down from the wall. Dust it off. Place it at the centre of your efforts to enable your employees to make good decisions on behalf of your organization.
Tate Bengtson is the executive director of the Enderby & District Chamber of Commerce.