At Saberr we’ve come to understand how important values are in business. Our analysis of how teams work well together has indicated that values alignment plays a significant part in forming strong trust based relationships.
Now the question for us is how can we use this information to make people’s life at work more engaging and more productive. In order to do this we need to understand how values operate at different levels of the organisation
- How do values make individuals live a more purposeful life at work?
- How do values help teams work well together?
- How can values influence behaviour so teams achieve organisational goals?
The background: values alignment, trust and success
The Saberr team started our research by understanding how relationships form in one of the largest available “petri dishes” for social scientists, online dating. We observed that values driven questions were the best in predicting when online daters would close their account on the basis of finding a compatible match.
We then turned our attention to teams in a work environment. Research shows that values congruence is one of the strongest predictors of how well people will work together. We wanted to learn more about how this could be applied, so we built a tool and undertook our own research. Straight from the off we had remarkable success in predicting winners in business plan competitions. We then went on to look at measuring performance variation between team members in mature businesses and found the factors we measured in our survey were also able to explain up to 28% of the performance variation when correlated with the team’s own performance data. This is significantly more than you are able to explain using individual factors of personality alone.
How do values make individuals live a more purposeful life at work?
If I’m Edward — how can values help me be happier and more productive at work? This has been an area of much discussion and many of the leading actors in this field came together for the recent World Values Day in October.
Many excellent coaches work specifically with people like Edward to live life more closely to their values. The stories they tell demonstrate that values can provide clarity that helps him in many practical situations: setting goals, making decisions, solving problems, developing relationships. It’s a convincing argument that if you live your life closer to your values you will become happier
Many coaches recount inspiring stories of people who made sometimes very important, decisions in their life: how to manage relationships, where to invest time and where to look for a career based on their values.
So far so good. I doubt many people would suggest that living your life aligned to your values isn’t a good course of action. The challenge here is one of first, creating an awareness of your own values and second, creating a connection between your values and a change of behaviour. We all know that behaviour change isn’t easy and beyond the scope of this note but the theory is evident.
How do values help teams work well together?
Things get more complex, however, if Edward is part of a team. Edward may be living his values but so are Charlotte, Amanda, Pablo and Sebastian.
What happens if their values are different?
This problem is significant in a world where collaboration is so important. The evidence described above indicates that teams with less aligned values find reaching high performance levels harder. It’s not to say that it’s impossible but it requires the team members to address the challenges posed by having less aligned values.
The main challenge is building trust or psychological safety. Shared values are an important way that pairs in a team can build trust. The fact that a pair have the same “ends in mind” is a route to developing trust based relationships.
Amy Cuddy has indicated that trust is even more important than competence in professional relationships. Contrary to what most people at work believe, warmth, or trustworthiness, is the most important factor in how people evaluate you, ahead of intelligence or talent. “From an evolutionary perspective,” Cuddy says, “it is more crucial to our survival to know whether a person deserves our trust.” If we don’t trust someone — no matter how competent they may be it’s harder to develop a positive working relationship.
Trust problems can be viewed at two levels of severity. At one end an irresolvable breakdown in trust may be caused by badly misaligned values. We can all recall the time where a person was just a very poor fit with their team mates and needed to move on. Usually this decision takes too long to make from both sides and that time can be corrosive. It’s better for the individual and the team to acknowledge that the person would relate better to people in another environment.
However, before one gets to this point team members need to consider strategies for accommodating people with different values. Perhaps trust is so low it’s hard to see a way back, but with some guidance it isn’t impossible.. There are a number of approaches to how to align people with different values and build trust:
- The first approach involves building trust through greater understanding. Investing the time and energy and having direct courageous conversations to understand people with different values and the history behind those values. Through a deeper understanding of the person and overcoming our fear of the “different” we can start to build trust.
- The second approach is more goal oriented. Recognising the different motivations enables everyone to see what they can contribute to the goal. “OK, we recognise we are different! Now, how can we accept our differences and leverage them for the common good — our team and organisation goals”. It’s a more solution oriented approach.
- Another thing that a team can do to foster trust between team members is develop “ground rules”. These ground rules set out standards of behaviour the group agrees to adhere to. These are ideally generated and agreed by the team as a whole to establish understanding and buy-in.
How can values influence behaviour so teams achieve organisational goals?
At the organisation level most organisations recognise the importance of developing a common language regarding “how” people behave at work as well as “what they achieve”. We know from research that one of the biggest differentiators in organisations with both high levels of employee engagement and high levels of performance is organisational integrity. This is where the values on the wall are reflected in day to day behaviours. There is no ‘say –do’ gap.
However, many, if not most, organisations struggle to make organisation values relevant to employees. There remains a large gap between the hope and reality of how organisation values impact life at work. There’s much cynicism.
Speaking to a friend with a senior position in a large media organisation recently he rolled his eyes when I mentioned values. “The language upsets me” he commented “I want people to live according to their own values, not blindly follow the organisation values”. Which, when applied to a large organisation makes sense. Our data indicates that it’s very rare in a large organisation for teams to have identical or highly similar values. In a bank, for example, the sales department and risk management department had somewhat different values at the team level. We’d expect that wouldn’t we?
So we know that many companies develop a “values gap”, the toxic gap between what people talk about and what they do. This is one of the most corrosive aspects of corporate culture.
What can organisations do?
- First, consider alternative approaches to imposing values top down. As academics at Columbia Business School correctly suggest it’s much more likely that organisation values will have meaning for the employees if they are co-created.
- Second, especially in larger organisations think how you might frame values so they accommodate individual and team differences. An organisation wants to be aligned but not completely homogenous. One critical element that organisation values need to address is how collaboration between people or teams with different perspectives is managed. What are the guiding principles that people can refer to that are practical and meaningful.
- Check the values still get you to the goal. It’s awesome to create a code of conduct regarding how you expect everyone to behave. However, as Ed Mayo points out there’s no use in doing this if the values don’t help you achieve your goals. He describes the salutary lesson of Nokia where they co-created values that employees seemed to live by. The only problem was they found out that they were eaten alive by the competition because their values focus was too inward facing.
- Finally, if you are keen to develop shared values or standards at work walk the talk. There are many ways to indicate that you are paying more than lip-service. How and who you hire (and fire), who you promote, how you reward and many other decisions represent a key part in making sure values are lived.
Creating an organisation that is values-driven is life-long work. It requires energy that will come from individuals living life in accordance with their own values. It will require the tolerance and acceptance of team members accepting and engaging with people that have different values. At time we will have to accept that gaps are insurmountable. It also requires having organisation values that are relevant and useful when individuals or teams face practical dilemmas at work. In order to make any of this happen we need to make discussions more concrete and less fluffy. High levels of visibility that identify values at the level of the individual, the team and the organisation is a great place to start.