I upgraded my driving skills, less grinding and more stability, but stayed with a VW and, for a brief season in the early 1980s, drove an orange beetle that I loved. That poor car withstood a couple of wild years with me, but sadly succumbed to a bad roll on Route 36 between Denver and Boulder. I survived, but the car did not. At the risk of overextending a metaphor, this next gear shift from guiding principles to grounding principles is similar.
Identifying core values or guiding principles has been a key part of many organizational cultures in recent years. But often, values or principles become pithy words or phrases that hang on the wall or are brought out for show and tell, but do not really have true operational meaning for organizational life.
And while in theory core values or guiding principles should also be timeless, they must be reexamined and redefined for the new conditions and environment we are all experiencing. Some of your deeply held assumptions about your business or nonprofit are likely no longer valid, and unless you dig deep to excavate them, examine them and then adjust, you will be stuck in past that is no longer viable.
Core values only really become operational when we get clear on what behaviors we will see as people are working them out in real time. For example: an organizational value may be “Relationships Matter.” Lovely. How will we know if this being lived out? One business unit I know operationalized it this way:
- We don’t take work home – our family relationships come first.
- We don’t work after 5 o’clock – if one person has to work late to complete a client project, others stay to help without being asked to ensure everyone leave as close to on time as possible.
- We don’t work on weekends – work without rest is disordered and will cost us relationally and financially.
- We don’t gossip – this mandates effective conflict resolution and communication. Interpersonal dynamics get worked through, not worked around.
This is only an example, and might not be viable in your organization, but you must do the work to get as SIMPLE and CLEAR as possible on your grounding principles to keep relational connectivity as healthy as possible.
Well-crafted grounding principles and values need to be operationalized in ways that everyone understands and knows how they impact their daily work. They answer the question “What matters most?” to us as an organization.
In working environments where people are not face to face as often, getting clear on grounding principles is a vital part of organizational health. This includes examining and addressing any of the well-known but unspoken rules that actually drive more of the culture than what has been articulated. If you regularly hear “Well, that’s just how we do things here,” you know that you have a kind of sub-culture at work that is actually driving and building your culture in ways you may not want. If you have not done the hard and sometimes painful work to make grounding principles clear and operational, then they are not useful or valuable for the organization and staff. You may as well roll them off the road and leave them in the ditch, much like my orange Bug.
And if you are the leader, you may be the one unintentionally driving this behavior. The things the leader pays most attention to are good indicators of what actually matters most to the organization. For example, if you have a value around people and relationships, but the only thing your people ever hear you talking about is budget and revenue, then you are communicating to them that people are not most important at all.
One final note on grounding principles for this cultural moment: Do your values inform and guide your hiring and staffing decisions and practices? In a time when every organization must be paying attention to diversity and inclusion with increased intention, you might want to to the painful work of examining how your actual values, the unspoken ones, are informing the process. How many women or people of color are on your team? How many sit in leadership roles or supervisory roles? Do your recruiting or hiring practices invite diverse applicants? The research demonstrates that organizations that value diversity are more productive and perform better overall, financially as well as culturally.
Diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-time campaign or a one-off initiative. Promoting them in the workplace is a constant work in progress, and should be maintained and nurtured to guarantee effectiveness. Empathetic leadership is key to this transformation. For real change to happen, every individual leader needs to buy into the value of belonging – intellectually and emotionally.
Undertaking this work, especially in complex times, seems daunting. But it has never been more important. If we can be helpful as you navigate these shifts, please email here to schedule a 30 minute consultation.