Values-based leadership is now widely accepted. Executives understand that liberating people to live shared values at work forges stronger business results. Yet, when it comes to the nuances involved in building values-based cultures, most leaders’ knowledge is simply incomplete.
Here are three overlooked best practices for fine-tuning your values-based culture. When you implement these proven approaches, you remove obstacles that arise as people try to live your company’s values and behaviors consistently.
1. Invest time to understand the actual role that values play in human behavior.
It’s tempting to think that in values-based cultures, people don’t behave in the soul-crushing ways you see in traditional, hierarchical workplaces. After all, when leaders take time to build alignment around shared values, they tap into the deepest drivers of human behavior. Shared values stimulate people to shed their selfish, overly competitive, uncivil behaviors. Right?
Unfortunately, not always. Even when people operate from a shared set of values, they can still lapse back into “me first” behaviors if their core human needs aren’t being met.
A contentious merger, for example, can trigger fear in employees that they’ll lose their jobs and won’t be able to meet their core human need to provide for themselves and their families. In this case, no matter how much employees want to behave according to the company’s values of “servant-oriented teamwork” and “civility,” they may find it extremely challenging to do so. Their attention is hijacked by satisfying a core need that, at the end of the day, is simply more pressing than bringing their best selves to work.
There is a tipping point when values become idealistic instead of realistic—meaning they may not be effective in driving your employees’ behavior when you most need them to, such as during periods of change.
As you lead your values-based culture, you must understand that drawing up a list of shared values is only your first step. Next, you must invest time in considering the situations in which your values may not be realistic to live and make adjustments accordingly.
2. Ensure that your company’s values address employees’ core human needs.
You can take steps to ensure that your company’s values will support employees to behave productively with one another even when it’s challenging to do so. They key is to align your shared values with your employees’ core human needs.
The most powerful tool we have for understanding core human needs was published in 1943 by human psychologist Abraham Maslow. In case you’re not familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, here is an overview.
Maslow’s theory was that if people’s basic and psychological needs weren’t met, it would be difficult for them to focus on practicing their highest ideals and behaviors (i.e., pursuing self-actualization). While Maslow developed his hierarchy through anecdotal research, it was scientifically validated in 2010 through extensive global research.
What does this mean for you, as a leader working to build a values-based culture?
It means that your company’s values can’t be randomly chosen. They must be carefully curated—and behaviorally defined—in order to ensure the fulfillment of employees’ basic, psychological, and self-actualization needs in that order.
In other words: Values that inspire people to reach for their potential are great, but values that put people’s minds at ease about their job security are non-negotiable for your company’s ongoing success.
3. Discern if company values unintentionally promote a selfish or competitive culture.
The last key to building a values-based culture that stands the test of time is to perform one final analysis: Do any of your values and valued behaviors unintentionally cause people to get their personal needs met in a way that erodes teamwork?
When I support executives through culture change, I often catch this sort of misunderstanding about building a values-based workplace. Values and valued behaviors that on the surface appear to meet people’s core human needs can actually undermine the fulfillment of those needs long-term.
Here is an example:
Consider the value of “timely communication.” On the surface, this value seems to promote game-changing teamwork and the fulfillment of employees’ core human need to know what’s coming down the pipe (and potentially impacting their work and livelihood).
In the age of social media, however, “timely” takes on a whole new meaning. And in the age of unprecedented generational conflict in the workplace, the clarifier “timely” can be used as a weapon against employees who aren’t comfortable responding with rapid-fire, shoot-from-the-hip thinking.
Values must work to bring diverse employees together, instead of driving them apart. Values (and valued behaviors) can serve to help some employees meet personal needs and forward teamwork while at the same time unraveling peace of mind and eroding teamwork in the hearts and minds of other employees.
A workplace must work for everyone or in the end it will work for no one. Shared values must fulfill the core human needs of everyone, or they will fulfill no one.
You can create a culture in your company that puts a foundation of trust and confidence under every single employee, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or upbringing. You can do this, with the right support. But building a values-based culture isn’t quick, it isn’t easy, and it is not a “plug-in solution.”