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Do Values have value?

Values have been described as personal--or organizational--North Stars. Having values means we have a constant fixture to guide us in the face of uncertainty. In the Northern Hemisphere, as long as you can see the North Star, you can navigate successfully, whatever the circumstances, and arrive at your intended destination. Similarly, the presence of corporate values enables employees to make good decisions if no leader or other source of guidance is available.

Our culture today often scoffs at the “antiquated” notion of values. On television and in print, we see daily examples of the degradation of fundamental values. Some in our society believe that having the basic freedoms we have means they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to. People behaving badly receive attention and recognition in our news media. Consider music videos that are less about music and more about sex. Or Wall Street traders who are concerned less about shareholder value than about their own net worth. Even some church leaders have made news for adhering to a standard of self-preservation rather than the standard of a higher calling that embraces honor and respect.

In the business world, values also receive short shrift. Managers thrive on metrics and measurement. Theirs is a world of spreadsheets and cash flow projections. A boost in share price may be well worth cutting a few corners. When people do talk about values, perhaps in a strategic planning session, it’s a quick and perfunctory conversation, held to get the check mark for having talked about Values in order to move on to Action Planning. Managers cannot apply Total Quality Management and Six Sigma to values. Values cannot be subjected to re-engineering. They are not quantifiable, and in the business world, some say, “If you can’t measure it, don’t bother with it.”

Values, too, can be dicey to talk about. People get uncomfortable, possibly because they are unsure of their own values, or they’re worried about the potential of a clash with someone else’s values--or because they have never heard of a workplace having values, and they don’t know what it means. Employees at lower levels don’t concern themselves with values because those were crafted somewhere “on high;” lower-level workers don’t own a piece of them. It is imperative that senior leaders invest time to define and explain the values of the firm to these, and all other, employees.

On the job, leaders have the opportunity to talk about values whenever they are coaching or reinforcing behavior. Rather than simply telling someone he/she did something wrong, it is far more effective to explain why the mistake is inconsistent with the company’s values. Armed with this deeper understanding, the employee is able to make better decisions in the future.

If the leaders of your firm don’t talk about and model the firm’s values, how are your employees going to learn what they are? If you want your employees to understand what you expect of them, you need to explain it to them. If you want them to act a certain way, give them a code of conduct--a system of values--to enable them to act decisively and in the best interests of the group.

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.

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