Can You Train for (Admirable) Values?

Companies looking to perform better and be more innovative need to consider taking a noble, less-traveled path. According to a global research study, the 2016 HOW Report, released last week by LRN, “organizations that deliberately focus on purpose, values, trust, and behavior outperform those that adhere to more conventional ways of doing business.”

From what I’ve experienced in the work world, it seems unlikely that the majority of companies would ever decide to take the high road, but there are some encouraging signs. The report points out, for instance, that “more companies are adopting a new standard for doing business.” That new standard involves “focusing on values, purpose, and fostering moral authority.”

How would you train on those values? And what does it mean in the day-to-day workings of an office? For example, if my boss has just told me how we can cut corners on a project we’ve been hired to complete, what is the best thing for me to do? My common sense would say to simply stay quiet, nod, and do whatever is assigned to me. But if you work in a company that is “focusing on values, purpose, and fostering moral authority,” what happens? In that kind of company, an employee who feels uncomfortable with her boss’ approach to a project for a customer would have a safe way of pushing back. She could have a non-confrontational conversation with him about why she isn’t comfortable with the approach he suggested, and then if he disagreed, she could take her feelings to the head of the department. This scenario sounds unrealistic to me. Do you think there’s a way to put a system in place, and train employees to follow it, so standards in how customers are treated are maintained?

Focusing on values, rather than rules, also appears to pay off. According to the study, 97 percent of employees at purpose-inspired, values-based organizations report high performance, compared with 80 percent of employees at rules-based, process-driven organizations, and 30 percent of employees at organizations driven by power and tasks. Does that mean focusing, as I’ve long advocated, on the quality and timeliness of completed projects, rather than judging employees according to how much time they spend at their desk in the office? I imagine it means creating a company with an ethos akin to Richard Branson’s, in which Virgin Group employees are permitted to take as many vacation days as desired, as long as they continue producing good products and services for customers. The focus is on the value of fulfilling customers’ needs, rather than on requiring employees to follow stringent rules.

The study also found that employee engagement isn’t enough. Rather, companies need to attract and develop employees who are inspired. To me, that means giving employees the opportunity to focus on projects that excite them, and it also means helping them to move easily to other parallel positions at the company. Is there any way to train managers to work with other managers to allow for these lateral moves, and is there a way to train employees that it’s OK to openly seek other positions at the company? At my own company, it was humorous when I went after a parallel-level position in another division. The manager I was interviewing with acted like we were sneaking around to do something shameful or under-handed. He made a big deal about not mentioning it to anyone, and being very discreet. The funny part was I didn’t care who he mentioned it to, and the second time I went after a job in that same division, I even joked that maybe it would be a good idea if he did hint to my current managers that I had gone after a position in his area of the company. Maybe it would light a fire under their feet to finally give me my due. Do your employees find themselves in that same position when they go after a position in another business unit?

Not surprisingly, the study revealed that those at the top have better feelings about their work relationships than those at lower levels. According to the study: “A deep divide exists between the experience of working in the C-suite and elsewhere in an organization, with senior managers and executives reporting 20 percent higher levels of trust, collaboration, and information-sharing than employees at other levels.” One reason for that is, at least at my own company, there is a club-like environment for those at the top, in which they get privileges and respect that the rest of the workforce lacks. For instance, at my company, penny pinching is one of the dominant cultures. But when a senior employee is leaving the company, he or she is treated to a formal affair at a restaurant, complete with multiple courses and drinks, and even out-of-town employees put up at hotels for the celebration. When you’re treated with such respect, it’s easier to trust those you work with and your employer. How does your company foster that same level of respect and trust among those at the mid- and entry-levels? Is it even possible to do so?

Another key finding of the study is that trust is the “most important enabler of innovation,” meaning: “At organizations where employees extend the greatest levels of trust to one another, innovation is 11 times greater than at organizations where trust is rated as low.”

To me that means establishing a culture that asks “why not?” rather than encouraging knee-jerk arguments and dissent. I don’t usually bring up new ideas at my company because I’ve noticed that new ideas often are a trigger for argument and negativity. Rather, I simply pursue the new ideas directly related to my work, and cross my fingers. I don’t first run them past my manager. No one trained me to do this. Should employees be trained to take the lead on creativity, and pursue it on their own (without fear), and then see what happens? To do that, you need a culture that allows for failure, or unexpected outcomes, with the idea that these outcomes will be discussed, so better approaches can be taken in the future. Can you train your company’s culture to be unafraid of trial and error?

The values you encourage shape your employees’ performance, and the products and services they deliver to customers. Can a more innovative, forgiving culture be put into place?

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