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Does Your Company Actually Live Its Values?

How can you translate words to actions with your values?

Written by: Marc Zarefsky
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Few companies set out to be corrupt, or knowingly employ unprincipled people. And none want their employees’ actions splashed across newspapers, going viral for all the wrong reasons. So how can it be that—in an age of organizational values statements and corporate social responsibility—fraudulent or otherwise unethical behavior continues to persist?

It turns out that getting people across the organization to actually adopt a company’s value system can be easier said than done.

“Organizations do a great job of coming up with their philosophies and principles,” Banks says. “But it is often harder to see how they live up to those values on a day-to-day basis.”

Bernie Banks, a clinical professor of management and associate dean for leadership development at the Kellogg School—as well as a retired U.S. Army brigadier general—describes four key steps leaders can take to ensure that their organizations walk the talk.

Articulate Your Organization’s Values

Visit the website of any company and you are likely to find a written expression of the company’s values. These guiding values—from employee safety to environmental sustainability to community betterment—tend to be clear, uncontroversial, and indisputably positive.

Yet employees at these organizations do not always behave accordingly.

Take BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Although one of BP’s stated values at the time was safety, the company’s management, employees, and contractors in fact engaged in a series of shortcuts that compromised safety, ultimately leading to eleven lost lives (not to mention 5 million barrels of spilled oil). A report from the Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement pinned the disaster on poor risk management, last-minute changes to plans, and insufficient training, among other factors.

“All the little things that transpired on a daily basis were not reflective of trying to take a safe and sound approach,” Banks says. “In isolation, each one of those little bitty things doesn’t matter, but then it ultimately aggregates and then boom, you have a blowup.”

Banks recommends a more explicit approach than simply assuming employees “get it” and have thoroughly internalized the company’s values. Leaders should routinely refer to these principles before, during, and after a project. How do those principles truly match up with the way the project is unfolding?

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