Your Organization’s Values May Just Lie in the Shadows

Integrity. Respect. Trust. Innovation.

These are the values that scroll through screensavers, blanket mousepads and hang prominently in hallways and meeting rooms.

So why are employees publicly shamed through email? Watch your back…

Why are new ideas squashed before seeing the light of day? Stay in your lane…

And why are employees bogged down in process when they could be innovating? Process trumps speed…

Shadow values

Six months ago you launched a new set of corporate values. You did the research, talked to employees, got leadership buy-in and away you went. You launched the campaigns, hung the posters and held the town hall. So what happened? Why are old (sometimes toxic) behaviors still ruling the day? Maybe it’s because you didn’t uncover the shadow values rooted deeply in the organization – those unstated values running interference between your intentions and your actions. Ones like “watch your back,” or “stay in your lane,” or “process trumps speed.” Shadow values are powerful because while nobody talks about them, they’re the ones driving undesired behaviors and hold the culture hostage. Unless your organization’s shadow values are uncovered, named and addressed, you can print all the posters you want – but old behaviors die hard.

Shining a light in the dark

Uncovering your organization’s shadow values is not easy. It requires employees to tell the painful truth about the behaviors of their colleagues. More difficult, it requires employees to take a hard look at themselves – why they’re behaving the way they do and its impact on others. That means traditional employee surveys won’t do the trick. It requires one-on-one conversations where employees feel safe to let down their guard and genuinely share what’s bothering them. It takes small, intimate focus groups where individuals feel heard and understood by their peers so they can share similar experiences. And it means asking questions in real-time during the course of an average day – in meetings, in the hallways and at the desk. With all that human insight collected, you can then uncover similar behavior patterns along with their root causes. What emerges is a set of shadow values that, when read to employees, incites head nods of affirmation.

From dark to light

With the shadow values exposed and their root causes uncovered, you have everything needed to write powerful, relevant corporate values. So instead of Innovation, you now have Work Brave because you’re no longer expected to stay in your lane. Instead of Trust, you now have Back Your Teammate because we should never have to watch our backs. Finally, there’s the question of how to bring them to life across the organization – which brings us back to posters, campaigns and mouse pads. Those are all great. But they’re for awareness and education only. Effective values must be designed into the day-to-day employee experience. Employees must see them in action during meetings, hear them in interactions with managers and feel them through the utility of their physical and digital environment. And all those experiences, along with the values that inform them, should be aimed at and measured by company performance. Without linking it all to marketplace performance, your values and employee experience efforts really are just fancy words on a shiny poster.

So, next time you’re wondering why that teammate just threw you under the bus, or why you need thirteen stakeholders to weigh in before a decision is made or document blessed, remember – there may just be a powerful value lurking in the shadows.

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