Month: November 2015

Closing the Values Gap

This is a post I wrote for the Vision Room in September of this year.

I say a lot of things I don’t actually do. I don’t intend to lie, or even drop the ball. It is just that I don’t seem to be able to execute consistently what I envision in the future. The gap between what we say and what we do can be hard to acknowledge. In fact, I used to really beat myself up for this, but as it turns out, I am not alone in this gap between what I espouse and what I actually produce. Even Paul in Romans points to this gap: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” (Rom. 7:15) Not living according to our aspirational values is part of the human condition, but not all of us address this dissidence in a way that results in reducing the gap.

I first became aware of this as a theory when reading a book by Chris Argyris (Strategy, Change, and Defensive Routines). At its root, the idea is that we all have two theories in our head at any one time:

1. Espoused Theory
The worldview and values people believe their behavior is based on.
2. Theory-in-Use (Produced in Action)
The worldview and values implied by their behavior, or the maps they use to take action.

At times, these two theories are perfectly aligned and our behavior is exactly what we want it to be, and exactly what we said it would be. Of course that builds credibility and trust in our relationships and we should strive for this all the time. Other times, the distance between our espoused and lived-out values can be visible and even painful. How do we, in those times, create more alignment between our aspirations and our actions?

For Ourselves

When we notice this misalignment, consider it a great learning opportunity. Having the self-awareness to recognize the gap is a critical first step. Rather than beating yourself up over the gap, I suggest you respond carefully:

  • Fix It. Can you correct this now, or is it too late? If there is still a chance to ‘do the right thing’, then do that immediately. As you do, pay special attention to what is the most difficult about it. That will provide insight to the inner struggle you have to resolve.
  • Inspect your Values. Are your espoused values really what you want? If so, then dig deep and do more of that. What was most difficult about doing the right thing in the first place? Work with a friend or mentor to talk through that challenge.
  • Communicate Carefully. Once you are more clear about your actual values and beliefs (not just aspirations), get very good at communicating precisely what you value and where you are on that journey. I believe my diet is the number one factor in my physical health, and I believe we all have responsibility for our own health. However, I am overweight and eat too much of the wrong stuff and too little of the right stuff. I now have to add a caveat to that belief: “and I am really struggling to implement that consistently.” Open acknowledgment of the struggle creates credibility with others and an environment where people may feel safe to be more transparent themselves.

For Others

As leaders in our organizations, sometimes we are more aware of our co-workers’ inconsistency than our own, especially when we are in the supervisor role. How do we deal with that?

  • Stop Assuming the Worst. We often jump right to a character flaw in that person. “He must have lied during the interview.” “I guess he doesn’t really care as much as he said.” Give them a break and assume they had the best of intentions and just have a gap between what they espoused and what they produced. It is OK for you, right? Then make it OK for them too.
  • Remember Your Purpose. As a leader/mentor/supervisor your primary job is to develop the people around you. Getting the work at hand done is important, but should be secondary to building the capacity of the people who do the work. We all need people in our lives to help us identify these disconnects — take the time to have the conversation. “Elizabeth, I know you value treating others with respect, and yesterday you interrupted Shannon several times. Help me understand what was going on there.”
  • Be Precise. Be very careful to describe the problem you are trying to solve. There are usually two problems and people often get them mixed up. One is the specific behavior that created the concern (the immediate problem). The other is the gap between espoused and produced beliefs (the more important problem). Separate the conversation to ensure you are only working one problem at a time. Why Elizabeth was acting outside of her values in that moment and apologizing to Shannon are two different things and should be treated separately.

Your Next Move

For yourself, think about the past week — is there any situation where your behavior did not match your espoused beliefs? Go address it in your own heart and then with the other person immediately.

For others, have you judged someone too harshly? Go apologize and reengage them to give the benefit of the doubt. Be prepared for hesitancy and defensiveness in that person. That is to be expected and is simply part of the process.

Process Drives Culture

Below is a post I wrote for the Vision Room, published in March of this year.

In organizations I have coached over the years, there is a common belief that business processes and work culture are separate, distinct things. While they are indeed different sides of a coin, I believe they are inextricably related. In fact, I believe they both affect each other, in a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship.

One question many leaders ask is, “How do I improve the culture?” Asking this question without also looking at your processes may not yield the right answer. And before we can dig into how to improve our processes or culture, we must define what we mean by those terms.

Defining the Terms

A process is a series of steps executed by people to achieve a result. Often times, those steps have dependencies on each other or on time. For example, when making coffee, it is important to put the coffee in the filter, then turn on the flow of water. To do it backwards creates a mess, not coffee. In addition, some of the coffee-making steps have a dependency on time. It is not a good idea to finish all the steps of making coffee the night before. The coffee gets cold and stale overnight.

Work culture is the environment, communication, and behaviors that intrinsically reward (or don’t) the processes we want. Of course, the concept of culture is tougher to define. It is even more difficult to define your specific work culture. You might hear comments like ‘people are so nice here’ or ‘the culture is so great, it’s like family’ or ‘the work was fine, but I couldn’t stand the culture’. What do your people do or say that gets them more freedom, more respect, a pat on the back, a round of applause at the staff meeting? That is your culture, regardless of whether that is what you want it to be.

Is Your Leadership Reinforcing the Culture You Want?

Because it is so difficult to define culture, it is extremely challenging to improve it directly. Rather than chasing this enigma, I suggest improving the processes we use to get work done and focus on the cultural implications that result. When people think of process improvement, the first idea is making something more efficient and trimming a few minutes off a task. While that can be helpful, I am talking more about focusing on the leadership and communication around processes.

Does the way you lead processes create the culture you want? If so, you are way ahead of the game — keep it up! Here are a few examples of inconsistencies I have seen over the years.

  • Safety is #1. I worked in a refinery years ago to improve safety processes and culture. Their safety record was pretty poor and they were suitably concerned. They were doing all the typical things, like hanging up posters touting safety, starting meetings with a safety discussion, even checking workers’ protective equipment and spending money to upgrade it. However, these processes were not creating the desired result because their leadership decisions did not reinforce the ‘safety is #1’ idea. In fact, the joke among the staff was, “Safety is number one, right after production and profit.” This was the result of leaders in the organization routinely making decisions to put people at risk in the name of keeping the machines running. Each decision seemed reasonable or even innocuous on its own, but the theme created a culture that rewarded putting people at risk for production.
  • We hire creative self-starters. Go online and read job postings and you will find an abundance of descriptions of how they want to hire self starters, independent workers, disciplined people, and on and on. That sounds great. Do those organizations then reinforce those qualities, or stifle them through approvals, bureaucracy, punishing mistakes, or rewarding ‘getting it right’? Creativity and the like inherently mean making mistakes and taking risks that sometimes don’t pay off. If we punish mistakes and reward perfection, then we are likely saying one thing and culturally reinforcing the opposite.
  • I don’t micromanage. Staff and managers alike do not enjoy an environment of micromanagement where every move requires approval and checking. I recently coached a church whose executive leader was very proud he was not ‘one of those’ micromanagers. He gave his staff quite a bit of freedom and autonomy, which are good things. However, in his desire to give freedom, he did not give direction or set expectations. As a result, the staff generally felt unsupported and uncared for.

In these three examples, the leaders all meant well, but did not create the culture they intended. Their leadership decisions and communication created the opposite culture. Not only was that culture not as strong as they wished, it created confusion in the staff with the mixed messages.

Your Next Move

Next time you think about your leadership decisions, ask yourself if your communication and behavior are reinforcing the culture you want or not. If you have a trusted advisor, ask their advice on this subject, since it is tough to have this level of self-awareness.

© 2018 Dave Bair

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