There is plenty of research on how to alleviate stress in your organization. Here is what I have found to be the most rigorous, statistically valid, independent research on workplace stress—and the precise steps your HR department can take to reduce it:
- Poor job fit (and the stress it produces) is preventable, when values-alignment between employees and their working environment (i.e., their team, supervisor, and organization).
I was a huge advocate for values alignment in the workplace long before I read either of these studies. My professional experience had already proven time and again that without such alignment, work cultures rapidly foster stress, erode engagement, and destroy productivity. For decades, the question for me hasn’t been if values alignment is important to relieving workplace stress, but rather how to engineer values alignment in a way that is authentic and sustainable in the modern workplace.
Here is a step-by-step method that you can use to ensure core values alignment in your organization and build a culture that purges stress:
Step 1: Understand how values actually work in your organization.
Values are not black and white and simple to discern. On the contrary, they are nuanced, subtle, and relative. By “relative,” I mean that in different situations, a person’s most cherished values can rub up against one another. When this happens, people can be forced into choosing which personal value comes out on top. Values trade-offs, as you can imagine, are emotionally laden.
For example: “I believe in doing my part to meet my team’s challenging deadline, but I also believe in spending quality time with my family. Which is more important to me, overall? And, how can I live that value without compromising the team?”
Values trade-offs often happen in the context of your people’s relationships as they navigate their shared work. Values themselves are emotionally driven, and relationships become vulnerable when emotions run high. Therefore, when people in your organization are not aligned in their core values, you can see how emotions can be triggered, stress can mount, and everyone’s wellbeing (and productivity) can plummet quickly.
Values are not black and white and simple to discern. On the contrary, they are nuanced, subtle, and relative.
To create a values-friednly work environment in your organization, it is critical to first understand and embrace the caliber of performance that you are committing to and the caliber of values transparency your are committing to—and gather the appropriate support.
Step 2: Build the appropriate degree of values alignment among people whose values are bound to differ.
If conflicting values can lead to emotionality, stress, and derailed work effort, does that mean you should strive to cultivate total values alignment in your organization?
No, not at all. First, because it’s impossible. And second, filling your workplace with people who never differ in their values will make for a weak organization.
Think about it for a moment. If you employed only people who valued growth, innovation, and risk, where would that get you? Conversely, what if you had people who only valued predictability and "they way it's always been done"? You’ve got to have a certain level of values conflicts to have a balanced, strong organization. Different roles actually need people with different value sets.
But there is a certain level of values alignment that you must have in order to forge a positive, productive, stress-purging working environment—four to five values you and your people must align around intentionally and consistently.
You've got to have a certain level of values conflicts to have a balanced, strong organization.
Typically, these values are centered on how people are expected to relate to one another and how people need to be treated to do their best work. It’s important here to not confuse values with morals. Values are far more powerful in influencing how people actually behave, instead of just how they intend to behave (which is often how morals are described).
You need to identify four or five values people in your organization share. It’s a process of helping your people distill their expectations down to the core. Once your core values have been identified, you and your people can then pinpoint the handful of appropriate behaviors that, when practiced, will demonstrate what it looks like for your values to be lived out in your workplace.
This shifts team values from an internal, attitudinal assumption to an explicit behavioral expectation. Do this work, and you will give your organization a tremendous competitive advantage. By nailing down your core, shared values and correlated valued behaviors, you establish your rules of engagement. You erase all doubt about how the work will get done in your workplace, and acknowledge what stress-inducing behavior won’t be tolerated.
Step 3: Integrate tools and channels to honor your values and stay aligned around them.
You will benefit from making your shared values concrete using an organizational constitution. Draft a document that contains your team’s servant purpose (their “reason for being,” besides making money), the values and valued behaviors you have discerned and agreed upon, and your strategies and goals. Then, have every person in the organization sign it—from executives to hourly employees. The more public and transparent you can make this signing activity, the more meaning it will have.
Your organizational constitution will serve as your reference point and rallying point. Specifically, your constitution will help you make behavioral performance equal to technical performance. With constitution in hand, you will be equipped to build values-based metrics into every performance evaluation. If people are rocking their goals, yet contributing poorly to your values-based culture, your organizational constitution will give you a concrete tool to let people know they’ve got work to do before they’ll be considered star performers.
Also, your constitution will you to celebrate your people’s successes! You’ll be able to readily reward values-aligned behaviors. This is important. In our cutthroat marketplace and the incivility that’s currently running rampant, here will be many situations that challenge people to live your shared values. When they rise to the challenge, lift them up, publicly. Thank them for contributing to your values-aligned, stress-purging culture.
People will only take your values-work seriously if you and your leadership team model these values and behaviors in every interaction, making how the work gets done as critical as the results.
Step 4: Measure and monitor your results and your valued behaviors.
Unfortunately, values alginment isn’t “one and done.” You’ll need to commit resources to ensuring values stay top of mind for everyone in your organization. Sixty to 70 percent of your time and energy (and that of your leadership team's) should be spent on modeling, coaching, monitoring, and further strengthening your values-based culture.
Sixty to 70 percent.
If you redirect the majority of your focus to your culture, you’ll experience a profound shift in the vibrancy and productivity of your workplace. As a result, systemic organizational stress will dissolve. Your people (and you!) will become more positive, purposeful, and productive. Results and profits will follow suit.
Simply put, by prioritizing the building of a values-based, stress-purging culture, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.