Values that don’t add value
Anil began managing a team whose reputation for customer service was pretty poor. The team’s primary responsibility was creating complex reports for other groups inside the company. The word about the team was that their output was consistently sloppy and late.
“I don’t get it,” he told me. “The company’s values are posted all over the place. And one of those values is to be customer-focused. I keep telling the team they need to serve their customers. They insist that they do, but they don’t! Believe me, Tom, no one in the company thinks they’re customer focused. But they don’t seem to have a clue what I’m talking about.”
After we talked a while, I asked if I could tell him a story from my childhood. He said sure.
I told him that when I was growing up, my parents often repeated the saying, “Many hands make the work fly.”
To me that meant, “Pitch in! Be a team player! Working together is great!”
This was a perfect fit for me. As the youngest of four, I loved being included with my older siblings. I was a great team player. So was my sister. But it wasn’t the same for my brothers.
One brother only liked being part of a team when he could be the leader. When he couldn’t, he wasn’t a great team player.
My other brother was more of a loner, so he often kept to himself. He was a great worker. He just did his work quietly and separately.
Make values have value
“Were we each modeling ‘many hands make the work fly’?” I asked rhetorically. “Since it was our parents’ value, it was up to them to decide if we were or weren’t. Same with you. It’s up to you to decide if your team is acting in ways that are customer focused or not.”
“They’re not! But they think they are! So how do I move them along?” he asked.
“I think you need to teach them specific behaviors. That’s what we needed as kids. Just repeating ‘many hands make the work fly’ wasn’t going to teach us what to do differently. We had to be shown the behaviors. Maybe your team doesn’t know what to do differently. I’m guessing if they knew, they’d have done it by now. I doubt they’re trying to annoy you!”
I continued. “A value only becomes reality through actions. People have to know what the value looks like in order to display it.”
Anil replied immediately, “For them, ‘customer focus’ would look like accuracy and hitting deadlines!”
“Great. So keep the value in the forefront but tell them what behaviors will demonstrate the value. That shifts the value from being words they hear to being actions they can do.”
Anil began to create a list of behaviors he felt would represent “customer focus.”
An explosive use of values
Christine, on the other hand, needed to approach values quite differently in a situation that felt highly personal and potentially explosive.
She’d recently assumed global responsibility for an entire line of products at a large American corporation. She was racing to learn the complexities of her new responsibilities and, at the same time, figure out the intricate relationships within the business unit.
Her relationship with Tony, one of her new direct reports, wasn’t going so well. As she told me about him, I could see her anger rise.
“Tony keeps going straight to Robert with information. He completely bypasses me!” Robert was her new boss. She went on. “Keeping me in the dark shows an incredible lack of respect.”
“Respect?” I asked. “Why is this about respect?”
“Oh, come on, Tom,” she said. “He’s a V.P.! He should know better than to cut me out of the loop. And not once or twice, but three times! And I’ve only been leading the group a month! You don’t think that’s a lack of respect?”
“I think respect is irrelevant,” I said. “I can’t imagine it will go well if you make this a battle over values like ‘respect.’ But I do think you need to manage Tony’s behavior.”
“But it is about values,” she said. “If he and I don’t have shared values, he’s not going to do well on my team.”
I asked if I could give her an image that might change her mind about “respect.”
Playing on the game board of life
All of us are playing out our lives as best we can, I told her. It’s as if we’re standing on an enormous game board. When we’re young, the board is populated by just a few people—our family and friends.
As our lives expand, more players show up on our board. Of course while those players are showing up on our board, they’re also playing their own game on their own boards. Sometimes those players are only on our board briefly before their board takes them off in new directions. Sometimes their boards overlap with ours for decades.
Suddenly, here is Tony, playing by a set of rules that look “disrespectful.” But if you asked him, I’m sure he would explain why that isn’t true. He’d explain that the moves he’s making on his board—like going around her to her boss—make perfect sense because of the rules on his board. He’s playing his own game and Christine was never part of it until now.
But imagining that his moves are about “respect,” or any other value that involves Christine, makes his behavior feel personal when it’s not personal at all. He’s just making moves on his board. And now, I told Christine, it is her turn.
I asked her, “Would you actually go up to him and say, ‘You need to show me more respect’?”
“Before this conversation, yes, I might have. Now? Probably not.”
When I asked what she might say now, she ended up with a fairly calm, very clear request for him to include her in his communications.
I replied, “After you tell him the behavior you want from him, then you might tell him that it represents a value. You could say it would feel more respectful if he included you. But beginning the conversation by saying he’s being disrespectful sounds too much like name-calling and blame. I can’t imagine it would be helpful.”
Connect values to behavior—or behavior to values
I felt Christine’s solution was the opposite of Anil’s.
In Anil’s case, it was important that he consistently keep the value up front. Name the value first, then specify the behaviors that would exemplify it.
In Christine’s case, it was important that she talk about the behavior first and keep the value well in the background until the discussion about behavior was complete.
How can you tell which sequence will be most effective for you?
If your situation feels personal and emotionally charged, you’ll benefit by focusing on behavior, not values. Decrease the tension by getting distance. Picture the big game boards. Remember that whoever is irritating you is just making their move in their own game. Introduce values later. Start with behavior.
If, on the other hand, your situation demands that you instruct, develop and influence, use the value as a banner. Mention it repeatedly. But also get specific about the behaviors that represent the value. A detailed example of this style of management is the core of an Executive Coaching Tip from 2008 called Managing Bad Behavior.
Whichever sequence you use, it’s important to remember that values are only well-intended words until people act them out. Behaviors, not thoughts or ideas, demonstrate the values you hold. Helping people turn values into behaviors is a sophisticated display of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.