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Value-driven Leadership

The value of values in the workplace

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We are passed the point of no return. “Business as normal” will never be what is has been before. As highlighted by McKinsey’s article, The CEO moment, it is time to reflect, recalibrate and redefine what we want the future workplace to look like, “free of the burden of historical norms”. 

Research has shown how the pandemic has made people stop and reflect on what matters in their lives. This shift has made people of all ages seek more than a pay-check from their job, they want their work to have meaning. We are all stopping to ask, “do my values align with my organisation?”, “do my values align with those around me?”, and, “is my work having a meaningful, positive impact on society?”

The ‘value’ of values in the workplace is not a new concept. From Dr Paul Wong, to Professors Edward DeciRichard Ryan and Anya Olafsen, the ROI on meaning in the workplace has been well evidenced. One such study identified “purpose” as one of the three key drivers for employee engagement, and my recent research in Sustainable Leadership has reiterated how meaningful work acts to prevent burnout and optimise performance. So, while we have known it leads to better organisational outcomes for some time, it is now becoming more important than ever. 

In a series of three articles, I am going to explore the concept of Values, the importance of them in the workplace and give you the tools to use value-driven leadership to recapture your sense of community in a remote workplace. In doing so you have the change to enhance collaboration, motivation and resilience, while driving organisational performance without unnecessary fear and stress.

BEING, not DOING

McKinsey’s article, The CEO moment, emphasises the importance for leaders to elevate their “to be” list to the same level as their “to do” list. This goes as much for individuals as organisations so what does that mean and how can we do it?

  1. Leaders, it is time to reassess YOUR values

When goals and actions are not aligned with our values, it leads to stress, cynicism and low satisfaction, three core symptoms of burnout. This not only impacts your performance at work and job satisfaction, it is likely to ripple into your personal life, adding unnecessary tension to relationships and inhibiting your physical health. My recent study interviewed CEOs who had experienced and recovered from a major crisis. They all independently emphasised that ensuring your values align with your work is paramount in maintaining focus, efficiency and wellbeing.

This does not only help you to get through challenging times, it is fundamental in maintaining morale, engagement and loyalty. As David Schwimmer, CEO of London Stock Exchange Grouptold McKinsey “people are looking to me for a different kind of leadership”, and this is a value-driven leadership. 

The reason that this is so important is that committing to core values offers a sense of stability and coherence in a world that feels uncertain. Lance Fritz, CEO of Union Pacific explains that “making decisions in accordance with our values” is about being “reasonable about what I do know, what I don’t know, and what we’re doing about it”. 

When we don’t know what’s coming next or what the next ‘right’ decision is, explaining our decisions in relation to our values, our WHY, gives our teams and employees a sense of safety and justice. This concept, most recently popularised by Simon Sinek, is a cornerstone of the fair leadership model and a building block of collaboration, engagement and psychological safety in the workplace. 

So, it is time to think less about what you do, and more about who you are? 

  • What is most important to you? What gets you out of bed in the morning, energises you in times of challenge and gives you a sense of pride? 
  • Where have these values come from? Are these ones that are assumed because of your past experience or current situation? Or are they considered and relevant to who you are and who you want to be? Do these things REALLY matter?
  • What aspects of your actions do you feel are aligned with your values? Which are not? Which actions can you take to redress any imbalance? 
  • Encourage your teams to do the same

The current situation is causing great dissonance around the importance of our work, our role and our purpose. Such cynicism can lead to emotional distress, lack of motivation and poor mental health. This is not surprising when the nature of work has changed so much. 

Imagine, for example, the person who loved their role because of the opportunities it offered them to travel and work in other cultural settings, who is now restricted to their immediate surroundings. Or the relationship manager who was energised by client meetings and collaborative conversations, who now struggles with the inevitable zoom fatigue as she battles to get face to face time with customers who are suffering the same. Or the graduate who has been looking forward to the big move to the city, keen to learn and grow, who is now confined to a bedroom workspace with just a scattering of interactions with the people who inspire them most. It can be easy to lose your passion for work when it is all conducted from the comfort of your own home. The key to reigniting that spark is “purpose”.

In times of change and uncertainty, our values act as a guidepost that offer resilience, clarity of thought and intrinsic motivation, thus mitigating the potentially damaging effects of stress and enabling us to optimise performance and innovation. Furthermore, as McKinsey has highlighted, to harness the potential of values in the workplace does not need to be complicated. In fact, just talking about our values make us feel like we are living them. This leads to four times increase in engagement and organisational commitment, as well as five times higher levels of well-being. Additionally, if you can encourage such conversations in group settings, you will enhance a sense of team cohesion, collaboration and morale.

As you connect with your team in meetings and one to ones, try asking these simple questions

  • What aspects of your job make you feel most alive? What gets you out of bed each day? What tasks give you the greatest sense of satisfaction?
  • What character strengths do you bring to this role and this team? How do you bring these to the work you do? What strengths have you seen in other team members?
  • [CW1] ? Which are most important to us as a team? How can we bring these more into our meetings, conversations and work? 
  • Explore the boundary where company meets community

In times of crisis, people are more directed towards giving back. This affects the whole ecosystem of your organization – from your employees as individuals and their expectations of your organizational commitment to society, to your customers, stakeholders and neighbours. Ensuring we are committing to our values on a macrolevel demonstrates integrity, authority and reliability as an organisation. These will act as the foundations of resilience now and will drive you forward towards a stronger and more sustainable future.

Three ways to start committing to this are:

  • Empower your teams to engage with meaningful community projects through sustainability challenges, volunteering projects, awareness building or fundraising, 
  • Ensure your ‘charity of the year’ aligns with your team values and interests. Consider directing funds towards specific projects which resonate more deeply. 
  • Ask yourself, how else as a company, can we move beyond conversations about diversity and CSR to have a more meaningful impact on society? How can our organisation lead the field? How can we use our actions to inspire other organisations to do the same, so that, as a global community, we are all working towards a common, positive future.

For businesses to thrive now and sustain their performance in this future, workplace culture, leadership and strategy are more important than ever. Targets need to be about more than the bottom-line, they need to be value-driven. This is the path to resilience, performance and loyalty.

If you want to learn more about values in the workplace, igniting engagement and Sustaining Positive Leadership in Challenging Times, join Clive Leach and myself on 18th November for a 45 minute webinar in support of MQ Mental health research.


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