Use Beliefs Instead of Values to Guide Behaviors

Gordon Dmytriw

During a recent visit to a client’s office, something about their parking lot struck me as odd. Easily 30 percent of the vehicles were backed into their stalls and parked “nose out,” a fact I noted to my host during our meeting.

While I knew safety was one their core values, I didn’t make the connection. Turns out backing in is a safer way to park. As you drive past the spot to position your vehicle before backing in, you can ensure the spot is clear. Leaving is safer because you have better visibility and don’t risk a “backover crash,” a particular type of driving hazard which accounts for more than 232 fatalities and 13,000 injuries per year.

While I thought this was an impressive display of values in action, my host expressed disappointment that only 30 percent of the cars were backed in. In the field, tactical parking is one of those non-negotiable safety acts. He took this inconsistent behavior at head office as evidence of the work yet to do in inculcating the value of safety into their corporate culture.

This got me thinking about the work we do in helping our clients craft their organizational narratives, and the challenges inherent in living out the ideas embodied in them.

Here is a company working in an industry where the value of personal safety should be self-evident. Leaders who are dedicated to holding their workforce accountable to the highest safety standards still have challenges getting behaviors to change.

How much harder is it for companies who insist on using traditional – and less concrete – values like “customer service,” “integrity” and “honesty” in their narratives?

In his Food for Thought article, “Are you Specific or Diffuse?” Dr. Balaji Krishnamurthy writes about the challenges that arise when diffuse speakers (those who make broad statements in the service of finding common ground) speak to specific listeners (those who value precision and clarity to evaluate meaning). Communication breaks down.

We see this same problem in many of our engagements when we talk to leadership and managers about their core value statements. They strive to craft noble yet diffuse value statements (e.g. “We value the customer above all and put their needs first”) in the interest of enlisting general agreement from multiple constituencies (employees, customers, leadership, etc.).

These statements end up sounding great but often don’t connect to their intended audiences despite their well-meaning intent.

They are necessarily diffuse because they strive to capture a big idea with broad, descriptive language. The result is that important ideas end up as dusty words on the boardroom and lunchroom walls – impotent sentiments largely forgotten because their descriptions lack specificity and therefore don’t connect personally to the reader.

I think there are two problems at play. The first is with using the word “values.”

As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed, we use words to make pictures of facts so others can see the image in their mind and understand. However, on the whole, we’re not very good at it. We don’t take the time to get a clear picture of what is in our own mind when we describe an idea. The result is that others get the wrong picture and communication breaks down.

The problem is complicated because some words are harder to interpret than others. “Values” is one of those words. We see this time and again when we facilitate discussions about values. The word is interpreted differently in different contexts by different people. The result is that people struggle to find common ground about what they mean when they use the word “value” to capture an important aspect of the organization.

In helping our clients craft their “core values,” we’ve come to understand that what is important is not so much what they are called (principles, guiding sentiments, etc.) but rather what they’re meant to accomplish.

This is the second problem with value statements. Regardless of the placeholder label we use to describe them, we often lose sight of why we take the time to capture them in the first place.

We care about them because they are signposts (yet another way to describe them) that guide behavior. The end game – the “walk after the talk” – are the behaviors we desire to promote or eliminate.

Value statements are just the means to an end. We use them because there are truly an infinite number of behaviors, making documenting them unrealistic, so we reach for suitcase ideas in an effort to get everyone on the same page.

Is there is a better approach than crafting diffuse value statements to guide behaviors? We think so.

A more clarifying (and specific) way to think about the “collection of ideas that help guide organizational behavior” is to think about beliefs. And admittedly, while a belief if just another label for “an idea worthy of action,” it has the virtue of being more readily understood, making it easier to talk about.

It is much easier to connect beliefs to actions – behaviors we can in turn model. After all, the whole point of developing these statements is to give one another clear language to support right-minded actions.

If you want to craft a story about what’s important in your company, try asking your employees what they believe.

Listen carefully for like-minded sentiments, and then find language that specifically describes an example of the belief in action. Instead of saying, “We value customer service,” say, “We believe no customer should be on hold for more than 60 seconds.” Instead of saying, “We value integrity,” try, “We believe people should say what they think even if it is difficult or controversial.” Instead of, “We value safety,” try, “We believe no circumstance justifies an unsafe shortcut.”

Crafting sentiments in this way makes the ideas they embody personal, and moves the notion from intention to action.

They are more immediate and so much easier to observe, talk about and ultimately celebrate.

Call them what you will – core values, principles, beliefs or corporate DNA – they are a critical component of your company’s story. They are the stars your employees use to navigate their own and their colleagues’ behaviors. If they are more “motherhood and apple pie” than clear, specific statements of action, put them in front of your employees and have them help turn the “words on a wall” into actions on the floor.

Ask them what they believe to be true about the company. You’ll be surprised how different their beliefs are from the noble sentiments you probably have on your About Us page.


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