As leadership consultants we come across the natural consequences of the values leaders and organisations live by on a daily basis. We find leaders who lift their organisations to new heights by passionate allegiance to universal values that are embedded in the culture of the organisation.
But this is not always the case. Leaders on occasion proclaim their allegiance to positive valuesbut their life styles and work performance do not match up to their rhetoric. This raises some pertinent questions about the importance of values in our personal, family and work environments.
A week or so ago I sat in a personal leadership conversation with a young leader at Harmony Gold Mine who is making things happen around him. I was impressed with the passionate allegiance he manifested in theory and practice regarding the set of values that drives the organisation he works for. To him values such as safety, honesty, connecting, achievement and accountability are totally interconnected with successful performance as a leader. Other Harmony Gold leaders around him also manifest a similar allegiance to organisational values.
In general though, we find that many leaders do not really grasp the imperative of values as being the source of human and organisational behaviour.
We wrote about values in a previous article in this column but want to revisit this key leadership subject.
Considerable differences occur in defining the nature and role of values. Amongst other definitions, values are defined in the Illustrated Oxford Dictionary as: ‘One’s principles or standards; one’s judgment of what is valuable or important in life’.
The above definition typically describes values as a ‘gesture of belief’ in what is most important but does not cover the psychological principle that believed values are an imperative and root of human motivation. In other words, there is a prevailing belief amongst many people that values are ‘important’ but not necessarily crucial to performance. This is a mistaken concept.
The following principles may help us to obtain a better understanding of the world of values and how to make them work for us:
Values are an imperative of human behaviour.
Our believed values strike deep into the very soul of human behaviour. It is not what we say that is necessarily a true reflection of our value system, but what we believe to be ‘real’ in the deepest part of our being.
For example, a sales person may pay lip service to the values of the organisation, but in reality he is far more concerned with sales. Our behaviour is a direct reflection of our true value system. Most of us would claim the value of being a fair and compassionate person. Yet if we are suddenly confronted with a hijacker poking our face with a dangerous weapon, then our personal values system may be in tatters at that moment. The reality of the weapon in our face may override our verbally declared values. If the driver happens to be a well trained martial arts practitioner with years of conditioning for such situations, he or she may possibly be cool, calm and collected. But many, if not most of us, will panic. We are motivated by our believed values.
Embracing positive values
The above example of being high-jacked is an extreme example but it makes an important point. We need to recognise that our positive values must be conditioned into our very soul or else we will default automatically to negative values. All of us are in fact driven by a set of values that are a mixture of both positive as well as negative. This is a major reason that people perform so differently in life. Some have a well entrenched positive value system while others default very quickly to negative and reactive values.
The point is that believed values are an imperative of human behaviour. All our perceptions and actions are driven by our perceived deep-rooted values, whether these are positive or negative. The normal day to day negative expressions of human conduct such as anger, frustration, criticism, vindictiveness, envy and misunderstanding, are all mostly expressions of our negative value system.
But the other side is also true; that the many expressions of loyalty, compassion, unity, patience, tolerance and passion for excellence are an expression of our positive value system.
Common leadership language and culture
When an organisation embraces their values they also create a common leadership language and culture that has immense benefits in lifting the performance of all involved.
Negative values or beliefs
The most common enemy of excellence in an organisation is that of negative attitudes amongst staff members, especially amongst management. We should differentiate sharply between the ability on the one hand to recognise negative barriers to excellence and on the other hand a negative attitude in general. Recognising negative barriers is a mark of top leaders, but negative attitudes are killers of organisational performance. Negative attitudes are very often a direct manifestation of a negative personal value system that tends to overrule positive attributes in that person.
On a personal basis it is important to recognise those negative beliefs and perceptions that cloud our ability to be positive. It is by recognising and acknowledging our negative perceptions that we may be empowered to replace them with positive values. A friend of mine in management for years manifested an inclination to be negative. He showed great courage in looking at himself in the mirror and letting go of that tendency to be negative. In his case he managed to do so by learning to face and process his negative perceptions by replacing them with positive values.
Business and organisational imperatives
One of the glaring lacks we come across in some organisations as well as individuals is the exclusion of business or organisational imperatives in their set of values.
This is a major reason why the declared values of an organisation tend to go on the back burner when faced with business or organisational imperatives. In other words, if my organisation fails to persuade me that organisational imperatives are an essential element of my/our value system, I will probably not consider those values all that important or believable. In practice this lack may serve to convince me that the set values are some kind of front.
Readers of this article may be surprised by the idea of integrating values with organisational imperatives, but it is one that should receive careful consideration. Some time ago we were involved in a coaching session with top management of a large operation. We asked members of the management team to tell us what their values are and they had to look them up in their files. This is not an exceptional situation and these were dedicated managers, all of them. Yet they did not ‘feel’ emotionally that their values were a business and leadership imperative.
Can you (the reader) recall the values of your organisation spontaneously? If you cannot it probably means that you have not taken mental as well as emotional possession of the values and that you do not feel that they are an essential element of your business or organisational imperatives.
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