Throughout our life, we pass through many forms of organizations. The first is the family. Then the school, the college, and the buddy group. Companies we work for are the next. We enroll in professional, social, or religious associations or unions. The apartments or societies where we stay for at least 1/3rd of our lifespan, also qualify for being an organization.
Family is the only organization that affords a life membership in true sense. In other forms of the organization, our membership period varies depending on our interests, organization’s expectations, and compelling circumstances in some cases.
While passing through various organizational forms at different stages of life, we pick up experiences with values embedded. Though it is difficult to shift the value-direction or value-orientation after a certain age, we do moderate them for responding to a given or an emerging situation.
Just to recap and to state simply, values are the principles or the core beliefs, we hold close-to-our-heart and so the organization holds them close-to-its-heart.
Needless to mention, we start picking up the raw material from the early childhood and by the time we reach the adulthood, we have already formed or found our values. Now, we enter the professional life. If we become entrepreneurs or remain self-employed, the challenge of cascading or adhering to values is rather doable. The difficulty creeps in when we take the salaried employment route. Either we find that organizational values do not match with our values or we discover that our employer does not practice the values as preached. Both situations lead to a mix-up.
Therefore, what role the organization has for making sure that the employees find congruence between two sets of values? On the other hand, the employees follow the organization’s values so long as they are not at loggerheads with their personal values.
I have an uncanny habit of drawing comparisons between the life events and employment events. So here again, I would draw lessons from my childhood. I grew up in a quasi-joint family wherein extended family members met frequently. How did my parents or elders transfer the family values to me when I was growing up? Mainly through two mechanisms. One, demonstration and second, explanation or clarification.
As happens in the most Indian families, my parents bowed down to their elders as a mark of respect, every time we met them. Their behavior of bowing down was a repeated reinforcement. When I deviated from the expected course of behavior, they scolded first and then explained with logic as to why I should adhere. When my parents fought and later laughed together, I learned the values of RECONCILIATION and OPENNESS. In addition, I embraced the family values easily because my reasoning abilities were not developed then.
After my post-graduation in business management, I was associated with three corporate firms for about 20 years. Each of these firms had a set of values, imprinted by the founders or the promoters or the top management. Since each firm had a beginning at different times either by the first generation promoters or by way of joint ventures among interested firms, there were obvious differences in their methods of deriving and cascading the values.
What follows next is a symbolic brief on methods of cascading the organizational values that I experienced in these firms.
Demonstration by the Leaders:
Doubtless, this is the most potent method of transferring the values across the hierarchy and locations. The employees observe their Leaders in a variety of situations and perceive a congruence between the documented values and their in-vogue version. The more the congruence, faster is the cascading of the values.
The supreme lesson for the employees lie in the Leaders’ conduct in the crisis. How the Leaders’ navigate through the crisis is a litmus test for them as well as for the strength of the organization’s values. If the employees see their Leaders’ talking & mingling openly, paying from pocket for personal expenses, and working relentlessly for achieving a goal, they learn the values of OPENNESS, INTEGRITY, and EXCELLENCE respectively. I am sure I have your accord.
However, the Leadership behavior is like a six in a cricket match. A batsman cannot hit a six on every delivery, though a six produces maximum results. Therefore, he has to keep ticking the scoreboard by taking singles and doubles or by hitting a boundary occasionally. Therefore, like a batsman, the leaders have to keep demonstrating adherence to the values in every instance to keep the value-board ticking.
Every communique to the employees present an opportunity to harp on the organization’s values. The challenge is to make sure that the language is crisp and easy-to-understand. Printed or electronic magazine is a powerful medium to convey the organization’s values and reasons why the employee should willingly adhere to them.
Speeches made by the Leaders or the Senior Managers of the company on different events, are also a powerful medium for explaining the need in person, for achieving business goals while staying loyal to the values. I experienced this medium in action in all the three firms I worked with.
The values by their nature are absolute. Therefore, they require constant hammering for their penetration in the employees’ minds and hearts. The values with their succinct meaning displayed in the conspicuous places in the boardroom, on the shop floor, in the canteen, in the office, in meeting rooms or training halls, etc. immediately catch the attention.
In addition, the letterhead, visiting cards, internal stationery, computer screens, etc. can carry the values either in text or in symbolic form. The choice of color or symbol is a subtle but powerful way of conveying certain values, e.g. red for the value of AGGRESSIVENESS or an upward arrow for the value of GROWTH.
Organization Design & Business Processes:
If the hierarchy is too long with many sub-grades or if the decision-making process is too slow, and if SPEED is a value, then it is case of potential misalignment. When EMPOWERMENT is a value and if the Senior Manager cannot approve even minor expenses, there is a definite contradiction. When the Managers habitually question every action of subordinates and if TRUST is a value, then there is an incongruity.
When the organization scores a rank in having the maximum dissatisfied or disgruntled customers and if CUSTOMER SERVICE is a value, the employees surely see a chasm. When customers repeatedly complain of poor quality of goods or services and if QUALITY is a value, it is a case of preaching-but-not-practicing.
In the last two decades, the Indian organizations have recognized the need for associating with only those vendors who have corroborative organizational values. The practice of the vendor’s value-audit prior to formal contracting is slowly gaining ground in India.
Strikingly, this is a common feature among many of the leading multinational corporations. Sacking a vendor when his conduct is within the contract, but contrary to the organization’s values, is increasingly becoming commonplace in India. Such practices enlarge the canvass of the organization’s values.
If the organization really desires to help its employees understand and adopt its business values, the best path is to formalize the process. This implies sharing with the employees in formal sessions, (1) the decoded meaning of each value in the given business context, (2) the logic and the advantages of each value, and (3) the observable behaviors for each value.
The organization must communicate firmly and demonstrate the consequences of non-compliance. I have experienced on two different occasions the power of values. On both the occasions, the top management immediately sacked very senior and performing leaders because they had displayed behaviors incongruent with the values and damaging to the organization’s reputation.
Ironically, the Indian organizations prefer to wait for the legislation and then comply. The pertinent case is the enactment of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Supreme Court of India had issued guidelines in the late 1990s for implementing a suitable mechanism in the organizations for recording and resolving the instances of sexual harassment. No one bothered until 2013. Suddenly there was a wake-up call when the Government notified the Act.
In the above backdrop, I am convinced that each organization can benefit if the following actions are carried out with the conviction.
(1) Deriving and communicating its values formally and unambiguously to all the employees including the new hires.
(2) Developing an internal legislation to make sure that each employee adheres to these values.
(3) Putting in place a mechanism for recording and resolving instances of non-compliance. The management should also demonstrate that this mechanism works, lest the employees would see a value-gap again.
(4) Implementing an audit process for strengthening the culture via values.
(5) Though tough, but attempting to identify and reward suitably the employees who live up to the organization’s values.
History proves that the organizations with feeble values or with poor cascading of values have succumbed to pressure and have committed suicide in a way. It is said that history is a good teacher and therefore it is the time to give due attention to the most effective cascading of the organization’s value. More so, when the competitive pressures entice the organization for taking a shortcut to success.