We’re Speaking the Same Language, but We Still Need a Translator: Three Ways to Get Clear about Values

Language barrierIn business, it is easy to speak the same language and still need a translator. The problem isn’t that the words aren’t understood; it’s that the underlying meaning is missed.

My colleague Dr. Richard Boyatzis, from Case Western Reserve University, shares a perfect illustration of this. He tells the story of being in a classroom of senior executives working on their MBAs. Two men in the group, both leaders in their 40s, identified “family values” as being important.

Boyatzis asked each what they meant by this. One man said it meant he was home every night for dinner. He’d turned down a promotion because it would have meant relocating his children. The other man said it meant he worked long hours, traveling constantly, so his wife and children had everything they wanted and needed.

Two men, the same words, very different meanings.

Consider another example, an organization that has “transparency” as one of its values. What does it really mean to be transparent? Should I be fully transparent with everyone, internally and externally, about everything all the time, or are some people and topics off limits to greater or lesser degrees in varying circumstances?  Where do we draw the line between good transparency and bad transparency, and how would I know the difference?

Getting Clear about Meaning

How do you make sure that you and your colleagues are all on the same page when it comes to values? Here are three clear steps you can take:

1)      Ask the right questions, all the time.

Job candidates at BerylHealth are asked to “Define compassion,” a value the company believes is essential for successful employees within the company. If the candidate can’t express a clear understanding of compassion, they won’t fit within the organization.

Clarifying questions around an organization’s values aren’t helpful just in hiring. Imagine you’ve identified a competitor you might want to acquire, but doing so will put a great burden on your existing team to work harder in the coming months. This challenges your core value of being “people-focused.” On one hand, the acquisition will generate growth, increased profitability, and new advancement opportunities for your people. On the other hand, it may stretch them too thin or risk damage to existing relationships with clients while you adjust to the new business. Asking, “What does it mean for us to be people-focused in this circumstance?” will offer new insights, create alignment among your people, strengthen your culture, and provide guidance on whether the acquisition is the right thing to do.

2)      Map your meaning.  One of the clearest ways to make sure your team has the same understanding of your values is to “map” what you mean by them.

To get started, at a staff retreat or meeting, write the name of one value in the center of a whiteboard or flip chart. Ask, “When we say TRANSPARENCY, what do we mean?” Surround the value with the responses you receive. As participants grow quiet, ask them to think about their responses again from the perspective of customers or clients, from the community, from others within the organization. Whenever possible, ask people to elaborate on their responses, and write down key words or phrases. In the end, you’ll have a full white board of meaning around the value, with little ambiguity.

Do this for each of your values. Your leaders will walk away with a sense of pride in their organization, as well as a clear understanding of the shared meaning of the values and guidelines for action.

3)      Share stories that illustrate the values.

Finally, at every opportunity, find ways to share stories that illustrate the values at work. Kim Reed Perell, CEO of Adconion Direct, (now Amobee) a global provider of cross channel advertising solutions, makes a point of telling stories that illustrate her company’s core value of resilience. Adconion Direct’s employee newsletter recognizes team members who have been “caught” showing resilience. Reed Perell’s stories and the culture’s public recognition of values-driven behavior gives clarity around the meaning of resilience, positively reinforces behavior, and serves as a much appreciated (and low cost) reward for team members.

Research shows that we listen to and remember stories much better than we do a list of bullet points or a deck of PowerPoint slides. Tell stories wherever you go, in meetings, speeches, one-on-one conversations, coaching sessions, and electronic communication.

If your organization does not have a living set of core values that get used in day-to-day decision making, then work with your colleagues to create one, and consider taking the steps listed above. If your company does, we’d love to hear about it and the impact it makes. Share your ideas here.


Dr. Jim Ludema is the director of the Center for Values-Driven Leadership and the principal investigator for the Return on Values research initiative. Find more about the Center’s scholar-practitioner approach at this link.
Image credit: TobiasMik · WhatWeDo via Compfight cc

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