Core Values – Do They Shape Our Environment or Blend into the Surround?

Core Values - Do They Shape Our Environment or Blend into the Surround?Read credible contributors to the field of organizational leadership and you’ll observe the priority given to thoughtful, well-designed mission statements that define purpose and set direction.  Reminded of this, corporate leaders, armed with good intent, gather in closed rooms with their most skilled to craft words that in a sentence of two capture their organization’s mind and heart.

But for a mission statement to be effective these well-chosen words need to awaken passion that motivates action not merely reflect belief.   To be gifted life, vision requires an alignment of an organization’s core values with the core values of those who call the organization home.  

This understanding of a clear, embraced, passionate focus is not new.  Long before Covey, Blanchard, and Drucker’s contributions, Scripture reminds that, “Without vision, the people perish.”

Unfortunately on too many occasions, vision statements and core values end up in hermetically sealed, glass enclosures, a dead tribute to those who oversaw their formation.  Occasionally they get memorialized on walls in engraved lettering that give the impression that something dynamic is happening behind entrance way walls.   

Unfortunately, in most cases these displays become little more than graveyard epitaphs describing a process that was given a task-determined lifespan before last rites were administered.  In essence they were the end result of a process rather than a culture shaping reality.

Companies would do well to take the time to examine the core values to which they ascribe for it is these values that should drive practice.  Actively lived out core values are intended to engage and fuel passion.

When an individual’s core values align with a company’s core values, an energy is generated that supersedes motivation that might be temporarily attained from salary, work hours, or a scintillating mission statement.  Despite how well-crafted a vision statement may be, it is powerless without that which gives it life.  Even if people are able to commit to a company’s vision, they will be walking in concrete if they lack passion for the vision that is being pursued.  But when alignment occurs, you will attract, motivate, and retain the brightest and best.

In essence people become purpose driven when the work is in close alignment with their deeply held beliefs.  When people feel a sense of contribution to a purpose greater than themselves, results are dynamic.

However, the opposite is true.  Pursuing vision without an alignment with underlying core values will result in frustration and a sense of disengagement.  At the least, individuals will withdraw into their world, cocooning into solo pursuits that minimize the benefits that could come were alignment made with another who shared a similar worldview.

Don’t Miss What Discontent May be Telling You

All too often an organization’s core values remain unacknowledged in day-by-day experience.  Core values, if properly defined, should act as the plumb line for decisions to be made.  They can serve as a definition place to determine whether a proposal should be entertained or rejected because the fit is wrong.  They can serve as a moral compass that will save hours of pointless deliberation because what is being asked is inconsistent with what the organization chooses to be.

Sometimes some significant core values can be overlooked because they do not appear at the operational level.  In fact, when people identify an organization’s weaknesses, they may actually be identifying core values that are undeveloped or underutilized.  But this does not mean that they are not core values.  These aspirational core values may be among the most important values to identify because their functional absence often identifies places where passion is being drained.

Another reason to give due attention to aspirational core values is because these values speak to the future, what we could be not merely what we have allowed ourselves to become.

Consider Zappos, an online shoe and apparel service, and their 10 “committable” core values:

Deliver WOW through service
Embrace and drive change
Create fun and a little weirdness
Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded
Pursue growth and learning
Build open and honest relationship with communication
Build a positive and family spirit
Do more with less
Be passionate and determined
Be humble

It is significant that most of Zappos’s core values are expressed with active verbs.  In other words, they list actions that can be taken to make them operational.  The result is a company that operates from clearly stated, passion-driven purpose.

This subject of purpose was closely examined by psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  His work provided compelling evidence that purpose is not only important, it is essential for effective living.  Participants were asked to monitor normal day behaviors taking special note of ‘non-instrumental’ activities (events engaged in but not connected to achieving a purpose – eg. non-work phone calls made, getting up to take a break, a coffee break with colleagues).  Once identified, subjects were asked to live the next day normally with the exception that they had to eliminate anything considered non-instrumental to the task at hand.

People who escaped their workstations for a brief, recuperative walk had to remain at their desks.  Fitness lovers had to forego the rush of adrenaline and the joy of hard earned sweat.  Those who enjoyed working in the garden, had to put shears and garden gloves away.

At the end of the first day, participants began to observe increased sluggishness and the onset of headaches.  Most reported difficulty concentrating.  These were but a few of the consequences.  After the second day, Csikszentmihalyi decided to halt the study due to the significant negative impact participants were experiencing.

He commented, “After just two days of deprivation …. The general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been unadvisable.”

Though much can be drawn from his findings, the parallels to this consideration of core values is clear.  In essence, the researchers asked their subjects to mechanistically complete tasks without giving space to activities that added joy and fulfillment.  They were to act as labor automatons accomplishing goals without the benefit of the very things that give the goal – and themselves – life.

When our core values become distanced from the mission we are called to embrace, the same conclusions can be drawn.  Strip from us those things which give meaning and it won’t be long before life is done mechanistically.

Ultimately the challenge leaders face is the need to look beyond their mission statements to find ways to identify and activate core values so they define and shape a workplace that is characterized by real, lasting and contributory engagement.

But take comfort, all is lost when this goal isn’t attempted or achieved.  After all, the brass lettering on corporate walls does make for impressive decor.

by Rob Inrig

Copyright © 2011 All Rights Reserved.

I welcome your feedback as well as your observations about core values.  Submissions are made with the understanding that they may be freely and without obligation be used in any future publications by Rob Inrig.

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