ASK THE OD DOCTORS: Are you Walking the Walk or just Talking the Talk?
Reflections and Thoughts by Dr. Lily Cheng
Founder and Chief OD Catalyst
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How do we know when leaders are truly leading or living out the organisational shared values?
The need to lead and live organisational culture through shared values is now considered by companies as a competitive advantage to retain and attract talents or future employees. The best companies listed in Fortune happen to also be on the Best Place to Work list and Linkedin’s Most In-Demand Employers list. Now what does this tell us? Companies with strong cultures are now the most in-demand. The bottom line is, if you want to engage and retain your top employees, tending to your culture is a leadership imperative.
Today, when you click onto any organisation’s website, you’ll see leaders talking (leading) about their shared values that dictate how they do business. Most organisations would have it in the first page or have them embedded in one of their website pages. For example, Johnson and Johnson's credo, states that their "first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” We’ve read about their infamous Tylenol case, and over the years I do think that they’ve been honourable in their responses to consumers, be it owning up to their mistakes or compensating millions for a product usage that has gone awry. I think that their management of such cases has to do, in a large part, with the way they've committed to live our their credo - their philosophy of doing work.
But how do we as leaders not only talk but also walk the culture of the organisation through shared values? If we were to survey Johnson & Johnson employees, whether they feel that their leaders live up to the shared values, what do you think will be the likely outcome of the survey? A resounding YES?
It is important for us as leaders to check whether the values we espouse match the reality of our employees’ experiences. What are the possible reasons why the WALK is not realised in organisations? I address five here.
1. The leader's personal values are not aligned to the organisation’s. What can they do to ensure the alignment is close enough so that they can confidently TALK and WALK about the culture?
As quoted from the management guru Peter Drucker, "Organisations have to have values. But so do people. To be effective in an organisation, one’s own values must be compatible with the organisation’s values. They do not need to be the same. But they must be close enough so that they can coexist.”
Leaders have to constantly ensure that their values are aligned with the organisation’s, through finding similarities and linkages between their personal values and those of the organisation’s.
2. Internal policies and practices are not aligned to the shared values.
“Aligning values, strategies, and management practices may be simple to understand and simple to talk about, but it is very difficult to actually implement.” – Charles A. O’Reilly & Jeffrey Pfeffer, Hidden Values (2000)
A previous client comes to mind when I think about this point. They have collaboration as a core value, but when it comes to the crunch, there was a lot of talent-hoarding and competition within the company, and leaders were not willing to let go of their best people to allow them to develop in other areas, or to support the organisation's greater growth. This is the same as with teamwork as a value. Many organisations I’ve come across simply don’t live it out!
How about integrity as a value? When it comes to performance appraisals, leaders don’t confront the brutal facts and end up not giving the employee real help or developing them in a way that makes them employable and valuable to the organisation. Let's move away from keeping appearances and dig deeper into the changes that have to be made in our day to day behaviours.
3. Shared values have no meaning — and leaders do not hold employees accountable to live the shared values
Sometimes our employees ignore, misinterpret or don’t live out the shared values at work. When a client of mine had "challenge the process" as one of their values, they realised that employees began to step out of the line with this value - there was disrespectful and unruly challenging going on within the company, and this value was taken to the extreme.
What happened was that the value had no meaning - because it didn't operate in the context of a social norm. I firmly believe that there must be a social setting in which we live out our values. In addition, the leaders didn't step in when they should have intervened! A lot of leaders don’t hold team members accountable to the values, or help their teams to understand and deepen the realisation of the values on a day to day basis. When we don't do that, values become meaningless.
4. Shared values are not part of our everyday discussion
Do we as leaders pursue success or profit, at the expense of shared values? Do you hear your employees murmuring about how the leaders are focused on getting more profit rather than spending time on ensuring that their core values are ingrained and lived out by every employee?
When leaders literally articulate values clearly, affirm, demonstrate and celebrate them, the walk will be in the everyday talk. Leaders need to start weaving values into the fabric of our everyday work discussions.
5. Leaders don’t intervene when there is a value-conflict among teams at work
This is a common issue that I observe: between sales and quality, there tends to be a pursuit of sales rather than the quality of the product. Take for example recent cases from Volkswagen or Samsung - it does seem that the priority in their considerations was the revenue generated instead of whether their product was safe to consumers. These critical incidents are opportunities for the leader to intervene, especially in these value-conflicts amongst different functions in the workplace.
In conclusion, values have to always be in the conscious mind of leaders to Live and Lead. The emphasis of being seen and heard is illustrated in this framework:
Which quadrant are you in a this point in your leadership journey? Are you an influential leader who is both seen and heard when it comes to your organisation’s values? Are you visible in Leading and Living your values? This is a powerful force - it can transit and transform companies from Good to Great, and this is where it’s most difficult to copy; it will lend to the organisation's DNA to survive and thrive.
I intentionally communicate my organisation's values when situation warrants - LEAD
I intentionally demonstrate my behaviours that are aligned with my organisation's values - LIVE
We would love to hear what other thoughts you have regarding the role that leaders play in building and sustaining organisational culture. Share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!