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Building Healthy OrganizationsTransforming organizations through values based leadership
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2009 Computronix (Canada) Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat are Values?
Every one of us has a value system that shapes who we are. The decisions we make every day are guided by our values. Some of those decisions are deliberate and easy to explain. Some are difficult to articulate, because they're related to intuitive, gut-feel reactions. Companies have value systems that shape how they do business and treat their customers and employees. Communities have value systems that establish what's accepted as "normal" and dictate how people are expected to behave around one another.
Building Healthy Organizations is about discovering the value systems that shape the interactions between the people who make up an organization. Initially, we wondered if this should be a book about individual value systems or about corporate value systems. It seemed like it was an important question, but in the end, we're not sure that it makes a difference. Why? Watch a leadership change take place in a company. Notice that it doesn't take long before the company seems to pick up the personality of the new leader; a strong leader's personal values are quickly adopted by the organization. When there's a clash between the new leader's values and the values alreadyentrenched in the organization, there are big changes coming! People who can't embrace the new values become more and more uncomfortable, their stress levels go up, and they become unhappy. They might become so unhappy that they leave or so irritating that they're dismissed, or they might just sit there like a festering sore that needs attention. When new leaders aren't strong enough to survive the transition period and instill their values into the organization, they will be the ones who experience increasing stress and either leave or fester.
Where value systems match, people will find that they fit. The less their value systems match, the more discomfort they experience. When there's little in common, there's little to provide a bond. People who don't share the same values misunderstand each other's actions and often end up in conflict.
Individually, people express their value systems in a different way than organizations do. Our personal values are a collection of preferences, beliefs, and boundaries that shape our decision making and help define our responses to pressure or stress. An organization's values are expressed in the policies, principles, and expectations that direct the behavior of its employees.
Preferences are things that are pretty much negotiable. All of us have ways that we'd like things to be done and ways that we'd like people to relate to us. For the most part, we're pretty flexible about these things. Preferences can change over time with the slightest motivation. One day, we discover a different soft drink in the machine down the hall, and we have a new favorite! Sometimes we change our preferences on purpose-if we discover that we need to adjust our preferences to suit someone else's style, we can make that sacrifice with a little effort. That's not to say that preferences aren't important-they are. They tell us quite a bit about ourselves, but they're not very deeply rooted. More important, they are rarely the underlying cause of conflict nor are they the glue that bonds us to others.
Organizations have preferences that are described by their policies. Policies, in effect, spell out how the organization wants its staff to act in a given situation. Like a person's preferences, an organization's policies are important, but they do change over time. A new situation comes up, and a revision to the policy comes out to address it.
Our personal beliefs go much deeper than our preferences. Beliefs are some of the building blocks that define who we are and why we do what we do. Beliefs have a profound impact on our character, outlook on life, and reactions to life's bumps and surprises. Consider how our beliefs define our answers to life's difficult questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? Why do things happen the way they do?
Beliefs aren't necessarily based on facts. Sometimes they have more to do with perception than reality. For example, a person might be perfectly capable of doing something. They have the aptitude, skill, and strength to do it. But, if they believe that they can't do it, then, for them, that belief becomes reality: they can't do it. Belief becomes a limiting factor. It works the other way too. People do amazing things just because they believe they can, without any experience, training, or apparent qualification, because "I just knew I could!"
While beliefs are close to values, they're still not the foundational building blocks of our character. Beliefs change over time. We grow, experience, and try things. Repeated failure has a way of making us believe that what we'd hoped to do is impossible. On the other hand, success has a way of expanding our horizons and making us believe that a whole new arena of possibility exists where we'd previously seen limitations. Beliefs shape our faith, self-image, and ability to trust and love. What we believe can either empower us or hold us back.
Organizations have beliefs too, but they're expressed by the principles that guide decision-makers. Often those principles, like a person's beliefs, aren't written down anywhere-they're a commonly held ideology that shapes the way the organization writes its policies and expresses its goals, but they're difficult to articulate or describe. Leaders in an organization are referring to principles when they talk about the way the organization likes to do things or when they make choices about what they will and won't embrace as goals.
Most of us have a lot of preferences. We also have a lot of beliefs. But, we have surprisingly few values. And it's rare to be able to articulate our values without first having discovered them in the crucible of life-in those times where we're forced by life's circumstance to get down to the bare essentials. Those are the times where we discover the things that we absolutely will not change.
Values are the fundamental building blocks of character that outline who we really are inside-what makes us unique. For the most part, values involve our interaction with people. They're the internal rules that tell us how to treat ourselves and others. The physical world around us never gets in the way like people do-we can drill holes through mountains, find ways to adapt to extremes of climate or geography, and even escape gravity and leave the earth itself. Those aren't the main things that prevent us from reaching our goals-often, it's a clash with people in our lives. We've all experienced the challenge of a difficult relationship. Sometimes, it doesn't even have to be an intimate or long-lasting relationship that challenges us. Even shallow or casual relationships get in our way sometimes; people we don't have to interact with very often can affect us significantly.
Understanding values is very practical. Setting personal priorities, and having the discipline to stick with them, can't be done successfully until we know something about our values. If our values are out of sync with our priorities, our actions will continually fall short of our intentions. Our consciences will bother us incessantly if our jobs or positions require us to contradict a value-people can become depressed, angry, or cynical trying to handle the conflict.
Our values rarely change. When they do, it's usually out of some very difficult experience-the kind of experience that leaves us questioning our purpose in life or that leaves us searching for ways to ensure that we learn the lesson and never have to repeat the exercise that brought us to that point again. Because they're at the root of the way that we think, changing our values often shifts the entire structure of our lives. When values change, people who know us say things like, "What happened to you? You've changed!" Their tone of voice can be positive or negative-we can change for the better or for the worse.
Think for a minute about water building up in the reservoir behind a dam. Slowly, the buildup of water puts more and more pressure on the dam, until one of two things happens. Either the dam holds, the reservoir is full, and everything works as designed, or the dam gives way and the reservoir gushes through the break, wreaking havoc on everything in its way. Our values are like that dam-they form immovable boundaries in our lives. Slowly the pressures of life build up behind them, and either they prove to be strong enough to hold, or they give way dramatically, allowing the pressure behind them to come crashing through the foundations of our lives, tearing at our very souls. When things settle down, we make one of two decisions after we evaluate the results: either we rebuild the dam, strengthening a value so that it will hold more securely next time, or we change, deciding that the principles by which we live our lives need to be adjusted. In the real world, we can all relate to what those decisions sound like. When we decide to rebuild and entrench a value even more deeply, our thoughts run along the lines of, "I will never let anyone do that to me again," or "I will never let myself get put into that position again." When we decide that the value isn't a hill that's worth dying on, we sigh and think "I guess that just doesn't really matter to me after all."
Organizations have values too-systems of thinking that lie at their core. Those values define the principles that guide the way they operate and the policies by which they manage the actions and decisions of their staff. When the values in an organization are built on poor foundations, there can be enormous repercussions. How many of the ethical and financial disasters of the last twenty years were a result of corrupt value systems? How much damage was caused by the collapse of the organization when the values that should have held everything in check gave way and released a torrent of destruction into the society that should have been the beneficiary of their efforts?
The values of an organization are set by the people who give it leadership and direction. As leaders, our values shape the culture and environment that forms around us.
What we need is a way to objectively identify a person's or an organization's values, and be able to predict where the conflicts between them will be. If we could point to a value that an organization (or its leaders) hold and identify employees who either share or don't share that same value, we could predict which employees are likely to get into conflict with the organization as well as what that conflict will be about. We could work that understanding into hiring practices so we focus on recruiting people who are likely to fit well. We could use that knowledge to point out the inconsistencies between our vision statements and how we really act-the inconsistencies that create discontent and cynicism among the staff within an organization. On a personal level, we could discover the values in our own lives, find ways to assess their merit, strengthen those we feel are good, and make significant changes where we see a need for growth.
How many different areas are there where we can form values? Dozens? Hundreds? Take a look through most of the helpful books on leadership and management. Most of them focus on three or four specific concepts or activities-sometimes five or six but rarely more. As much as we like to think we're infinitely complex as human beings, the reality is that we really can't do a good job of focusing on more than a few things at once. We think that same logic applies to understanding values. Because values shape how we live at such a foundational level, it's likely that there aren't more than a handful that we really have to think about.
We believe there are five areas where we form values that affect the health of our workplace relationships. Each of these values relates to how we interact with people. The five values form the acrostic V.A.L.U.E. While they are discussed further in the following chapters, asking these questions can help you begin to define each one.
1) Value: Is a person's value largely based on what they can do for us or help us do? Or, do we have a way of understanding their value, independent of what they do to benefit us?
2) Aptitude: Is it our primary responsibility to assign tasks and "get the job done?" Or, do we have a responsibility for recognizing, cultivating, and developing people's gifts and abilities?
3) Learning: How do we perceive the mentoring or coaching part of our role? Are we primarily focused on honing job skills, or are we responsible to press people to grow?
4) Unity: In a conflict of priorities, do we sacrifice our own needs to meet the expectations of others? Do we tend to prioritize our own agenda, expecting others to live by our rules? Can people live as healthy members of a community while continuing to meet legitimate personal needs?
5) Empathy: How do we respond to people who need help? Do we feel that people should be held accountable for the way they use the gifts we give, or do we trust that people who are "victims of circumstance" will make responsible choices with those gifts?
In looking at these questions, we need to understand the idea of paradox. By definition, a paradox exists when two mutually exclusive things or ideas must coexist. In theory, the two things simply can't exist at the same time-in reality, they do. Our sense of justice, perspective of others, cultural baseline in terms of faith or religion, socioeconomic status, and lots of other factors will affect how we see the choices at each end of the spectrum painted by the question. But, we need to resist the urge to presume that these questions have a "right or wrong" or a "good and evil" context. For the most part, they don't. There is some context in which an extreme position on any one of the questions might be wrong, but remember that the questions are intended to describe a paradox, not to give an either-or choice. In fact, the only way to balance the paradox is to find a place where we can reasonably embrace a fairly wide set of choices.
The Road Ahead
The next few chapters will put each of these values on a continuum-a range of choices that stretch from one extreme to the other. Each scale represents a paradox: the extremes are mutually exclusive because we can't have them both. People who hold to an extreme in their personal point of view often call those who hold to the other extreme "wrong" or "stupid." An extreme doesn't usually make for a comfortable place to live. Finding a comfortable place on the continuum is done by striking a balance between the two ends-a balance that must fit our personal value systems.
There's no magic formula that tells us exactly how to find that balance; there's no "right" way or "wrong" way. But there is a methodology to it. Instead of trying to find the specific point at which we think the system will balance, like the center point of a teeter-totter, we've got to take a broader perspective. There's a zone between the two extremes where we can find a workable solution that may not be entirely perfect but where we can live with the trade-offs, a place where we do our best to understand the perspective of those who see the world differently than we do.
In fact, if we choose to include an extreme in our embrace, we find that the center we were hoping to include is beyond our grasp. If we position ourselves near the center and reach as far left and as far right as we can, we discover that we can include a fairly diverse set of opinions and expectations and develop the widest possible basis for consensus.
The analogy we use to describe paradox is that of a country road with a ditch running along both sides. For every mile of balanced perspective, there are two miles of unbalanced, unhealthy points of view that run right along each side. These represent the extremes of the choices on the value system. What we want to do is avoid driving in the ditch-it's better to stay on the road. Whether we prefer to be on the left, right, or middle of the road is up to us. The important thing is that we keep out of the ditch!
One last thought before we get to the details. It's important to understand that we have an amazing capacity to deceive ourselves in terms of self-assessment. There's an old proverb that says in effect, "Honest self-assessment is impossible when your priority is self-preservation." We can decide what we think our values ought to be by engaging in an academic exercise or by clinging to a particular philosophical position. But, if we want to know what's really at our core, then instead of thinking about our intentions, we have to look critically at our actions. We must look at what we do and not at what we should have done or wish we had done.
Excerpted from Building Healthy Organizations Copyright © 2009 by Computronix (Canada) Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Section 1 Defining Organizational Health....................1
Chapter 1: What are Values?....................5
Chapter 2: Value....................15
Chapter 3: Aptitude....................29
Chapter 4: Learning....................45
Chapter 5: Unity....................57
Chapter 6: Empathy....................71
Section 2: Building Healthy Organizations....................87
Chapter 7: Finding the Balance....................93
Chapter 8: Organizational Checkup....................111
Chapter 9: Measuring Personal Values....................121
Chapter 10: Value System Alignment....................127
Section 3: Maintaining Organizational Health....................145
Chapter 11: Promoting the Values....................149
Chapter 12: Building a Road Map....................163
Chapter 13: Maintaining a Proper Focus....................175