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Bridging the Values Gap: How Authentic Organizations Bring Values to Life

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Bridging the Values Gap

Business has a values problem. It's not just spectacular public scandals like Enron (which, incidentally, had a great corporate values statement). Many companies fail to live up to the standards they set for themselves, alienating the public and leaving employees cynical and disengaged—resulting in lower productivity, less innovation, and sometimes outright corruption.

The reason, argue top scholars and consultants Edward Freeman and Ellen Auster, is that all too often values are handed down from on high, with little employee input, discussion, or connection to the challenges and opportunities facing the organization. Although the words may be well-intentioned, they aren't reflected in the everyday practices, policies, and processes of the organization. This practically invites disconnects between intention and reality.

To bridge this gap between the “talk” and the “walk”, Freeman and Auster provide a process through which organizations can collectively surface deeply held values that truly resonate with everyone, from top to bottom. Their Values Through Conversation (VTC) process focuses on four key types of values conversations: introspective (reflecting on ourselves and how we do things in the organization), historical (exploring our understanding of our past and how it impacts us), connectedness (creating a strong community where we work well together), and aspirational (sharing our hopes and dreams).

By developing values through discussions—casual or formal, one-on-one or in groups—VTC ensures that values are dynamic and evolving, not static words on a wall or a website. Freeman and Auster offer advice, real-world examples, and sample questions to help you create values that are authentic and embraced because they are rooted in the lived experience of the organization.

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Chapter 1 The Values Gap in Business

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There is a values gap in business, and most businesses underperform because they cannot bridge that gap. The gap is not straightforward, and it is not as simple as live your values and be authentic.

First, all over the world there is a high degree of mistrust in business and its executives. Tell someone that you teach business ethics, and they have to manage not to laugh, or they say, “Oh, I didn’t know business had any” or “Must be a short course.” Public trust in business is at a low point around the world; and while a new story of business is emerging, it is dangerous for business as an institution to occupy the moral low ground in society.

Second, there can be a great deal of individual conflict around the idea of values. Values represent what is most important to us, and we often can be confused about these issues. In today’s interconnected world, we encounter many difficult values issues that we have never before confronted. And sometimes we expect that values issues are simple and that if we just act on our values, our problems will be solved.

 

Chapter 2 Just Be Authentic: Not So Fast, Not So Easy

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Former Medtronic CEO Bill George gives some sage advice in his best-selling book Authentic Leadership.1 He says that effective leadership is about being your true self—being authentic. Many leadership books presume that you can change leadership styles the way you can change your clothes, but most people know whether this is an act or a leader is being real. We can sense a mile away when people are faking it or pretending to be something they are not.

Being real and authentic to ourselves is what gets people to follow us. What does it mean to be authentic? The idea that we simply need to “walk the talk” is problematic. Sometimes we don’t know what the “talk” is and sometimes we don’t know how to “walk” it. Yet we all have a keen sense that being true to one’s self is central to quality of life.

This is a very old idea. Recall Polonius’s advice to his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

 

Chapter 3 Authentic Organizations: Is Yours One?

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The CEO of a large, successful, high-tech, fast-growth company wanted to start a conversation about the company’s values. He had one of his executives, Linda, gather the top management team and hire a facilitator to provide some outside expertise. During the ensuing retreat, whenever the CEO raised his hand to talk, all the other hands went down. The team always deferred to the CEO and his point of view. When the CEO was out of the room, the team talked about a laundry list of issues and problems that were values related. In the CEO’s presence, however, no one would say a word about those concerns.

The CEO had no clue about the effect he had on his team. The work environment was politicized, making honest conversation impossible. Further, in his closing remarks that day, the CEO reiterated that he would not tolerate corporate politics. When the facilitator asked Linda if the CEO was open to hearing that he was having a very negative effect on the company, she replied that the result of such a conversation would inevitably lead to her being fired. This company clearly had a values problem. There was not much authenticity. Today the company no longer exists.

 

Chapter 4 Do Values Right or Don’t Do Them at All

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Just to throw down the gauntlet, we believe that most businesses are subject to something we call:

The Performance Challenge
Most organizations underperform because they don’t understand how values work. The challenge for organizations is to do values right or don’t do them at all.

To better understand this challenge, we discuss three issues: some common mistakes about values, the power of connecting values to the business model, and values through conversation.

It is important to do values right for a simple reason: once you have framed a business model in terms of purpose and values, and once you have asked employees and other stakeholders to support those values, if you don’t follow through, it is very difficult to get a second chance. This is not to say that employees don’t forgive well-meaning mistakes, but they are much harder on hypocrisy. And depending on a company’s history, employees can be brutal skeptics if new values or a new purpose is simply announced.

 

Chapter 5 Introspective Values: Reflecting on Self and the Organization

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In a $100 million company with multiple lines of business from food service to hotels, every Monday morning the senior management team would meet and the CEO would ask each business unit manager to report on the results of the previous week. Whenever there was any bad news, the CEO would demand to know what happened. Oftentimes no one knew why, for example, sales had dropped by 5 percent, so the business unit manager would find some excuse, and sometimes a real reason, so as not to be embarrassed in front of the others. Among the business unit managers, this became a game that they willingly talked about among themselves. The CEO never understood that by threatening public embarrassment and by asking questions that did not have meaningful answers, he was causing his team to be unreflective and to actively engage in the search for excuses instead of real actionable causes.

Take a pause. Look forward. Look backward. Look sideways. Look up the hierarchy. Look down. Now start having conversations. What do we learn? Where are we going? Do our recent choices still make sense? Most businesses spend a lot of time focused on current goals and firefighting activities that leave little time for reflection. The annual strategic-planning retreat or the quarterly have-we-met-our-targets? meetings may trigger a bit of contemplation, but typically these activities are intermittent and future oriented. By being so preoccupied with the present with only an occasional look to the future, there is little time for introspection on how everyday and taken-for-granted decisions, actions, and behaviors facilitate or create barriers to success and narrow or widen the values gap.

 

Chapter 6 Historical Values: Exploring the Impact of Our Past

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Every person has a history. As French philosopher and author Albert Camus purportedly once said, “Life is a sum of all your choices.” Each of our histories is uniquely us. These histories become encapsulated as memories that follow a story line, although over time the story line may evolve. Our story lines also dramatically influence and shape the upcoming choices we make and actions we take.

The same is true for organizations. Every organization is the sum of all the choices and decisions of everyone in it. This history shapes the organization’s collective memory and identity—how those in the organization view the world and their past, current, and future choices and actions. History is woven into the fabric of the organization. Sometimes it is widely celebrated and pondered; other times it is so embedded that it goes unnoticed. But without history we do not really understand how we came to be who we are as individuals or as a collective organization.

The reason we teach history to kids in school is so that they can understand the struggles, challenges, decisions, and paths that led to the life they enjoy today. Freedom for North American kids may be taken for granted until they learn how generations before them fought for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to vote and own land, and so much more. Purpose evolves over time, but without keeping history alive it may evolve to a place where it is hard to recognize by organizational leaders as well as other stakeholders to whom it is so crucial.

 

Chapter 7 Connectedness Values: Creating a Sense of Belonging and Community

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Something totally unexpected happened at 8:15 one Monday morning at Colgate University, a small liberal arts college in the northeastern United States. More than 300 students staged a sit-in at the university’s admissions building to protest the treatment of minority students and the lack of inclusivity on campus. The problem had been simmering for some time, and the mood was angry and tense. The students publicized their efforts on social media, using the hashtag #CanYouHearUsNow and posting video testimonials. The news media picked up the story.

Instead of reacting defensively and calling security and the police or trying to shut down the protest, university president Jeffrey Herbst and other university leaders sat down with the students and listened to their stories:

I listened to several dozen students speak in raw, emotional terms about greatly painful experiences that stemmed from issues of race and identity, as well as class, sexual orientation, and, for international students, national origin. They recounted occasions of when they had been insulted on campus, felt marginalized both inside and outside of the classroom, and felt unsafe.…

 

Chapter 8 Aspirational Values: Our Hopes and Dreams

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American historian, poet, and novelist Carl Sandburg wrote, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.”1 How do we articulate a dream for an organization? One powerful way is through aspirations that capture who we are and what we stand for and why. Usually, to figure out what that dream might be we need to collectively ask, Why do we exist? In this chapter we explore the aspirational aspects of values through conversation that help us bring our organizational dreams to life.

Aspirations are discussed in many organizations but often take the form of a vision statement that focuses primarily on market and competitive positioning. These types of vision statements emphasize how the company is the first-choice brand or the most profitable in the industry or how the company guarantees excellent service to its customers. The vision is more of a marketing tool than inspirational guide. These types of vision statements, while sometimes helpful to the consumer, feel shallow and hollow to stakeholders such as employees. Although some companies have expanded the scope of their vision beyond competitive positioning and customers to include statements about how they aspire to treat employees and other stakeholders, many of those statements still feel empty and uninspired. This connection between being inspired and developing aspiration is strong and not well understood.

 

Chapter 9 Getting Started

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In this final chapter, we point the way forward by offering some suggestions for how your company can be authentic, bring values conversations to life, and bridge the values gap. First, however, let us recap what we have discussed so far.

Many businesses experience a values gap. This gap is a result of several factors. Business as an institution is experiencing very low levels of trust from the public. This is due to a number of well-publicized scandals as well as the dominant belief that business is concerned only with money and profits. Even when executives want to live by a set of values, it is not easy. We do not always know what our values are, and sometimes they can conflict. Personal values can also conflict with company values. The concept that we can simply live our values, or walk the talk, is more complex than it seems.

Values are complicated. After we have engaged in some introspection about the way our lives are unfolding, they represent our desires and preferences as well as what is most important to us. Intrinsic values are our best and most thoughtful answers to why questions. And if we want to live a more authentic life, we must commit to an ongoing learning process. We need to be cognizant of our individual history and its influence on what is important to us. We must pay attention to our stakeholders—those groups and individuals to whom we are connected—to accomplish what we want to achieve. And we need to acknowledge our aspirations and how they can change as we progress through life.

 

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