3 steps to leading values

Conventional wisdom states that successful organizations are the ones that strike the right balance between the hard stuff and the soft stuff. In other words, between daily operations, SOPs, and short-term profit on the one side and vision, values, purpose, and long-term positioning on the other. This is easier said than done – especially in a hybrid work setting.

An organization that focusses too much on the hard stuff will become stale and have a difficult time motivating employees who are looking for a sense of purpose that is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, too much focus on the soft stuff can become a spoke in the wheel when it comes to delivering the short-term results. Striking this balance becomes even more challenging in a hybrid environment.

Today, teams work in an everchanging combination of online and physical setups. Because this setup is fairly new to many leaders, they tend to direct their attention towards making daily operations run as smoothly as possible – and worry about the rest later.

But no organization can keep neglecting the soft stuff. Especially in changing and uncertain times. Values, purpose, and vision serve as the red thread that makes you who you are. It is what makes you unique, to your employees as well as your clients.

The great news is that once you realize the power of soft, you will see that it is not only a red thread but a potent driving force for your organization. So, you need to lead the soft stuff. Not because HR & Communication tells you to, but because it creates tangible value.

Whether you are a soft stuff supporter or not, here are 3 things for you to consider.

1 – Create space for dialogue

Creating space for dialogue means setting aside time to focus wholeheartedly on soft topics ­– be it values, purpose, culture, or wellbeing. What organisations sometimes seem to forget is that the space you create for this conversation, the format you chose and the way in which you talk about it is a direct reflection of the importance of the matter in your organisation.

So, do something to show that soft stuff matters. Perhaps an off-site with a ban on mobile phones? Or a meeting fully dedicated to a soft topic relevant to your team?

More often than not, the soft topics are run over by what seems to be more urgent and ends up as the last bullet point on the agenda or merely as an afterthought. And this is exactly why we need to make space for it.

Time and time again we see that employee experiences and attitudes towards change and structures are deemed less relevant in the daily grind, and at the same time we see this prioritization comes back to bite leaders in the a**.

When you create this space, be prepared to listen more than you speak. It has never worked, and will never work, simply telling your employees what they should be passionate about. Yes, this may be a bit of a caricature, but the point is this: don’t make assumptions. Values and purpose require translation and involvement to be truly understood and anchored. Creating a space for dialogue is a great occasion to let your employees help you help them.

One way of doing it is described in this article on involving employees in organizational processes.

2 – Make it real

Sometimes, values and purpose become somewhat of a distant mirage to the average employee, or an abstract exercise from top management and HR. High level thoughts and buzz words on a slide that is never translated into real life behavior. That often happens when you have not answered the employees’ most important question: “What do you want me to DO?”.

If you can answer that question together, then your employees become an active and engaged part of making the abstract concepts come to life by means of concrete actions. Some people even call this living your purpose.

When you work on values and purpose you need to focus on communicating a clear “why” and involving your team in the “how”. Especially in a modern hybrid environment where you do not have the same informal touchpoints with your team. Trust in the fact that your employees are the experts on which specific behaviors will be meaningful in their context. Use them as translators to make organizational purpose and values as tangible as possible in relation to their day-to-day job.

One method for involving the organization in translating abstract concepts into concrete action is the backbrief. You can read more about back-briefs as a tool right here.

3 – Anchor in operations

Discussing values and purpose is all well and good, but the red thread only appears when you start living them every day. And here you have an important role as leader, both in being a role model and in ensuring accountability.

This is where the rubber meets the road. Being a role model in a hybrid setup can be difficult, because you don’t have the same number of touchpoints and with that the opportunity to model the desired behavior. So, you need to be extra vigilant and make the touchpoints you do have count. And remember: You are also a role model in your virtual behavior (i.e. when you send emails late at night).

Ensuring accountability has both a formal and an informal side. You might not have 100% control over the formal side – performance systems etc. – but you can control the informal side. And by making values and purpose part of your 1-on-1s, various check-ins and the language you share you can truly make them come alive for your employees. And this is crucial to realizing the benefits of values and purpose. Because when implemented successfully, values and purpose are as integral to business success as daily operations.

At Workz, one way of helping our clients establish and lead hybrid teams is through our business simulation Bridgebuilders, where the focus is both on daily operations and long-term cohesion.