If you’re feeling stressed-out as a leader, you’re not alone. Even the most seasoned business leaders are finding that their training and experience haven’t prepared them for the scale and speed of the challenges that have emerged in the last year.
From managing employees’ mental and physical health, to providing a safe space for discussions about racism and diversity, to figuring out how the department impacts the planet and geopolitics, leaders have more on their plates than ever before—not to mention maintaining the operational and financial responsibilities that were already part of their roles.
The multiple crises facing society challenge the definition and parameters of personal leadership. They are also triggering a deep rethink among executive leaders about the purpose and values of their organizations, and how their organizations should behave towards customers, associates and partners.
Reconsidering the organization’s purpose offers one way to accelerate out of a crisis like COVID-19. Not every enterprise will need to change, but for ones that do, contending with changing values can be a messy business.
Here are the ways that executive leaders can explore whether and how their organizational values are shifting, and subsequently translate new values into on-the-ground change.
Determine if the Organization’s Values Are Changing
An organization’s purpose is the foundation upon which all decisions are made. What does the organization exist to do? An organization’s purpose may be unstated or explicit, narrow or broad, and hazy or sharply defined. In the best companies, the purpose drives a set of core values that inspire, engage, and rally people and partners around what the enterprise stands for.
The events of the last year forced many executives to confront assumptions about enterprise values. For example, pre-pandemic, leadership may have assumed that employees must be face-to-face in a corporate office to do their best work. Or, stakeholders may have assumed that customers care more about the price of the product than its carbon footprint. Such assumptions, which guide daily decisions and actions, are outward manifestations of the organization’s values and therefore make a good test of whether values need to change.
Leaders should rigorously reexamine organizational assumptions that may have changed in order to reduce any gap between the enterprise’s purpose and the values that drive day-to-day decisions. For each assumption, executives should ask:
- Has anything changed to invalidate our assumption?
- Should we go back to the way things were? Why?
- Should we adopt a whole new approach? Why?
- Should we accelerate things we were already doing?
- Should we combine old and new ways in a new hybrid approach?
Translate New Values Into Behaviors
It’s one thing for an organization to rewrite its mission statement or announce new core values. It’s another to truly change how the organization operates.
Imagine a person who states that he values his health and well-being and wants to eat well. That sounds laudable enough. But what does the phrase “healthy eating” really mean? Is it eating gluten-free, or having a vegan diet, or eating fewer calories? Values are important statements of direction and intent, but they tend to lack specificity.
Without more interpretation, such statements do not close the gap between what the company stands for and what people actually do. This dissonance corrodes employees’ trust in management. Moreover, the gap between professed and actual values can widen in turbulent and uncertain times, often with negative consequences for customers, the company, and even society.
Distilling values into behaviors requires setting a default position for how things are done. This explicitly lays out the baseline way to act and provides a starting point to guide employees. It takes a nice-sounding, but often nebulous, value and turns it into a guideline.
For example, if one of the organization’s new core values is to provide a safe and equitable working space for all employees, the default behavior could be to trust employees when they request changes to their work schedule or environment. Being explicit about the default behavior adds a layer of detail and interpretation to the value that makes clear how someone is expected to act.
Add Culture Hacks to Drive On-The-Ground Change
Adding detail to value statements, however, still runs the risk of such statements remaining theoretical. Ensuring that actual behaviors on the ground reflect aspirational values requires another layer: culture hacks. Culture hacks are small, low-effort, emotional changes inserted into the day-to-day lives of employees to translate theory into reality. Several cycles of hacks can be used as part of “culture sprints” until default behaviors become habitual.
For example, one value that many leaders have taken away from the COVID-19 crisis is the importance of agility. One target behavior that translates agility into a default way of acting could include pushing decision-making down to the lowest possible level of leadership. Now that it’s clearer what is expected of employees, those behaviors can be inserted into day-to-day life through hacks, such as instituting a rule for meetings that every time a decision arises, the team first asks if someone lower down could make it. If so, it is automatically devolved.
Another example could stem from a new customer-centricity value. A purpose statement like “put the customer at the center of everything we do,” might include behaviors such as defaulting to a customer starting point and working backward from there, or defaulting to customer data to support arguments. These defaults can be enacted with a hack like starting every presentation with a customer story.
Such small changes can have a big impact on ensuring that the organization’s actions reflect the business’s values and mission. With the events of the last year leaving a lasting impression on every business and leader, now is the time to reflect on who you want to be after COVID-19 and to make the changes to put those words into action.
Mary Mesaglio is a distinguished research vice president at Gartner. Her research is focused on helping enterprises to transform, innovate, and change their culture.