But values don’t exist in a vacuum — and they require upkeep.
This is especially true if your established values are at odds with what’s going on in your company both internally and externally. Meeting these challenges head-on is important because an ongoing disconnect between values and the reality experienced by employees may foster cynicism. They may lose faith not only in leadership but in the meaning of the core values themselves.
Start by embracing these three strategies:
Use Your Words
If tension arises between one of your company values and a critical business decision, the worst thing to do would be to brush it under the carpet or deflect attention.
When Google launched its Chinese-based search engine in 2006, it complied with local censorship laws. For a company whose motto was “don’t be evil,” aligning itself with a repressive regime attracted widespread criticism. Google was honest about its decision to enter the world’s most rapidly growing market for competitive reasons, even though they withdrew several years later.
Values are great because they can help shape business practices, but if a business decision runs contrary to your values, talk about it openly with your employees and your customers. Provide context: Was this a one-time decision? Why was it necessary?
Sandra Cha of McGill University and Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School suggest that “leaders who take the time to carefully explain the reasons behind negative decisions ... may be able to show employees the ways in which they are trying to sustain the values, while also managing business realities.”
Realign Work to Values
When values come under fire, it’s natural to consider changing them to fit the new situation. But remember: you came up with these values for a reason, and unless there’s a monumental shift in your company’s direction, you don’t need to throw everything out. What you do need to do is realign what’s going on in the company to be more in sync with those values.
For example, let’s say your company values “attention to detail,” but a high workload forces employees to merely do the bare minimum. Don’t de-prioritize this value or pretend the disconnect doesn’t exist. Rather, find ways to mitigate the workload and allow employees to focus once again on getting the details right.
Learn from the experience of computer pioneer Hewlett-Packard: when employees lose faith in your values, you must re-earn their trust. The company’s famous guiding philosophy — the HP Way — went by the wayside in 2002 when employees experienced mass layoffs, a highly publicized executive-level struggle, and a controversial merger with Compaq.
It didn’t help, of course, that the HP Way philosophy was based on trust and loyalty.
If you’ve strayed from your core values, re-earn trust by showing your commitment to those values in tangible ways. Admit mistakes, if necessary, and accept blame. Steer the conversation to a positive place by being transparent and emphasizing your common shared goals. In essence, reaffirm your values, as well as the contract between you and your employees.
Shared values make for happy employees and satisfied customers. So, when those values are challenged, use it as an opportunity to steer your organization back on course by being transparent, flexible, and committed.