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Do Your Organization’s Values Reflect What It Stands For?

The recent scandal at Wells Fargo provides a unique backdrop to discuss the role organizational values should be playing in today's leadership.

Over the past several months, there has been a growing discussion and even discord in various parts of the world over the issue of reasserting what our values are as a society and country.

From the various debates in European countries about the sociological impact of rising refugee populations, to the polarizing political climate brewing within the current US election period, there’s been a growing unrest in certain countries to ‘protect their country’s values’ in light of changing demographics and the growing interdependence brought on by today’s global economy.

Ironically, in almost every one of these discussions regarding the importance of protecting a society’s or country’s values, there’s a noticeable absence of clarity about which values exactly are in need of protection, or are currently at risk of being washed away by the arrival of immigrants and refugees on their country’s proverbial shores (in most cases, when certain values are pointed out as being at risk, they tend to be those that are already enshrined in a country’s laws or are deeply entrenched in existing cultural norms).

That lack of clarity about what values these countries need to protect reflects a current affliction impacting many of today’s organizations. Specifically, of how the values an organization uses to define who they are and what they’re all about tend to be contradicted by the decisions and choices their leaders make regarding the best way to achieve their short term goals.

Consider, for example, Wells Fargo, the latest US financial organization to get caught up in a major scandal and subsequent public relations disaster. An examination of the text found on their company’s webpage simply titled “Our Values” reveals this telling statement:

“All team members should know our values so well that if our policy manuals didn’t exist, we would still make decisions based on our common understanding of our culture and what we stand for. … If we had to choose, we’d rather have a team member who lives by our values than one who just memorizes them.”

And then further down on this same page, Wells Fargo identifies “ethics” and “what’s right for our customers” as being among those values that they expect all of their employees to recognize and abide by in how they perform their duties within their organization.

Now, considering the recent revelation that this financial institution had created almost 2 million fraudulent bank and credit card accounts in order to increase fees they charged to their existing client base, it’s not surprising that this company has lost the confidence and trust of both their customer base and the public at large. The fact that their actions blatantly contradict the very values they espouse to hold dear only makes the hole in which they’ve dug themselves into even deeper and harder to get out of.

But the larger issue this situation exposes for other organizations is whether the values they define as their organization’s credo or emblematic of “who we are” are truly reflective of both what their employees experience in their workplace, if not also what those in charge will encourage or allow their employees to do in order to meet their assigned targets.

Like Wells Fargo, many organizations identify values that one would naturally want to be affiliated with, not just for marketing and publicity purposes, but also for attracting and retaining the kind of key talent that will help to drive an organization’s success both now and in the future.

After all, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that prides itself on its integrity, on being truthful about everything it does, or putting the interests of those they serve ahead of the personal gain for a select few?

Of course, most organizations don’t fully live up to these values, treating them more like lofty goals we aspire to when we’re not so rushed to simply get things done.

And while most of us intuitively understand that values are not simply things we hang up on the wall, over the past few years, we’ve seen far too many examples of leaders casually disregarding the very nature and reason behind an organization’s values.

Namely, that the primary function of an organization’s values is to guide and inform our every action and word [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. In so doing, our behaviours and actions serve to set the example for those we lead of how to put these organizational values into action in their everyday work.

Indeed, what Wells Fargo and other organizations that publicly failed to honour and live up to their credo remind us is that an organization’s values shouldn’t exist solely on paper, but in what we inspire among those we lead [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

There’s a reason why in the political arena and the business field trust in leadership is at an all-time low. There’s been far too many examples of leaders openly contradicting what they say they stand for and what their actions and behaviours actually give rise to.

What so many in leadership positions today have forgotten is that an organization’s values come alive only when employees see that those in charge believe in them [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

As leaders, we have a responsibility to honour those values in every word, every action, and every decision we make on behalf of the people we lead. And it can’t be something we sacrifice for some short-term gain, as we’ve seen so many organizations succumb to over the past couple of years. Rather, there has to be an inflexibility around these values, much like the cardinal points on a compass.

But more than that, we can’t simply trot out values as a way to rally the masses as many politicians are now opting to do; of using it to distract those they have the responsibility to lead from seeing what’s really going on and what we’re really trying to achieve. Instead, we should use our organizational values to define not just who we are, but who we aspire to become.

Indeed, in many ways, our values should not simply be representational of who we are today; they should also help us to paint a picture of what we can create by working together. Of motivating people to bring their best selves forward in order to achieve a shared purpose we can all rally behind; of a future we can all see ourselves being a part of and wanting to make our collective reality.

Seen in that light, it becomes clear that our values should be about more than making us feel good; they should inspire us to become better [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

On the “Our Values” page of their website, Well Fargo makes this declaration:

“Corporate America is littered with the debris of companies that crafted lofty values on paper but, when put to the test, failed to live by them. We believe in values lived, not phrases memorized.”

As we all know, the opening line of this statement is unfortunately accurate, which makes their following comments about living up to their own values all the more ironic.

The fact is many organizations are currently suffering from a lack of trust amongst their employees for those in charge. And it’s not surprising to see these low levels of trust in today’s organizations when employees hear such noble, declarative statements about who we are as an organization, only to bear witness to how quickly those in charge overlook those lofty assertions in favour of attaining some short term gains.

If there’s one thing I hope leaders and their organizations will learn from this recent scandal of yet another organization failing to live up to what they’re supposed to do – of what they stand for – it’s something that Wells Fargo themselves state about how to view a company’s stated values:

“Our ethics are the sum of all the decisions each of us makes every day. If you want to find out how strong a company’s ethics are, don’t listen to what its people say. Watch what they do.”

While it’s clear Wells Fargo has failed to learn and apply this lesson in how they run their organization, here’s hoping the rest of us can use them as a cautionary tale for understanding what our values should really be about.

Namely, that our values are not simply what we claim about ourselves and our identity, but instead they are a reflection of our choices, and the actions and behaviours they give rise to both in the here and now, and going forward into the future.

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