Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Team Values

Anyone who's worked in an organization knows the spiel about company values: Here's what we believe is important; here are the behaviors and attitudes we promote in our organization. Although often borne out of a noble desire among the leaders, these "organizational values" often fail to enlist or even inspire the people within the organization, and are typically perceived as an attempt to control them rather than free them up, a vaguely threatening reminder that "Big Brother is watching."

So why does this happen?

There can be many reasons, but the first thing a leader needs to acknowledge when confronted with this dynamic is that the problem does not lie with the people in the organization; it lies with the leadership. Too many leaders don't really understand what a value is and how it actually works within a team or organization. For one thing, values are typically not something you can impose. They arise collectively out of the team dynamic.

Here's a good definition: A value (in the team sense) is an existing dynamic, attitude or outcome that the team collectively holds as important or essential to its survival or success.

Most of the stated values of an organization are actually aspirational values--that is, they represent the values that the leaders wish were true, or want to be true. But they too often have little or no connection to the values that are actually already present in the organization, running the show.

Quick example: One NPO I have worked with had a stated value they called "Balanced Living"--which promoted the importance of avoiding burnout on the job by slowing down and taking regular time away from the office. Problem was, almost nobody on staff lived this way. Why? Because they had an unspoken actual value (which we later named "Fast") that equated success on the team with treating every project like a Code Red Emergency. If your workload wasn't constantly bathed in a sort of panicked urgency, then you weren't really committed or trying hard enough. The team would even (unconsciously) push back essential planning and decisions until the last minute so they could create the necessary stress level that their "Fast" value needed to thrive. Almost nobody liked going fast all the time; but they collectively believed (subconsciously) that going fast was the only way to survive or succeed in their organization.

Which leads me to a few tips and observations regarding values that I think every leader needs to know:

  • Your team or organization already has a set of values by which it operates. You cannot integrate new values into a team until you have first named and openly explored with the team the values that are currently already there.
  • Values belong to the team and can be changed only by the team's collective choice. Trying to impose a value on a team doesn't work. You can force compliance, but not agreement.
  • To move a team toward your aspirational values, you must first openly explore and name with them the values that are currently present. Only then can you promote the benefit of embracing the new values you want for them, and then invite each team member to make a conscious decision about whether they want to let go of the old value and embrace the new...or not. Authentically moving a team toward a new value involves a process of enlisting people, not enforcing your vision.
  • There will always be a certain percentage of people on your team who will not agree to a value change, even after the majority makes the shift. These people will need to step out of the organization; and the sooner, the better.

What are the actual values that currently "run the show" on your team?

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