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  • Writer's pictureNeal McIntyre

Compromising Clarity: The Tailspin Made By Value Overload



Several weeks ago I was sitting in the lobby of a business waiting for my name to be called for an appointment that I had made. I’m naturally an observant person but I’m even more so whenever I have to sit idly by while waiting on people, meetings, etc. In these moments, I try to find anything to pass the time, such as counting ceiling tiles, counting floor tiles, people-watching, etc.


On this particular occasion, I couldn’t help but look at the wall decor for this particular business. Like a lot of organizations, I noticed several accolades of awards and recognition that the organization had received but other things caught my eye. There were 3 or 4 picture frames on the walls that looked to contain almost the same information. The material in each of these frames was in the same format and structure so that a quick glance would lead one to believe that they were exact copies of the same. 


As I walked over to each picture to read the contents that it contained, I was rather intrigued as there were some duplications but also some differences in each one. Each one contained generic material about the organization, such as its mission and purpose. In addition, each one contained a section that listed the values of the organization - but this is where things became different. 


How do your values reflect and shape your organizational culture?

Each organization has to have values that they believe in and that should be part of the driving force behind their business. Ideally, these values should also be represented in the work and interactions of every employee of the company, so there must be tremendous buy-in amongst every person within the organization. 


If you’ve ever been part of a start-up organization, you’ve most likely taken part in various team-building activities. Part of this usually involves the new co-workers developing a purpose and mission statement for the organization as well as collectively creating a list of company values. In fact, this process of inclusion goes a long way towards developing buy-in from all involved since each person has a voice and part in this process. 


Why is this important? It is from this foundation that company culture should flow. If you’ve ever taken part in a course on sociology or anthropology, you may remember that culture is nothing but the shared beliefs, values, rituals, and traditions of a particular group or subgroup of individuals. From this, our actions and interactions with others are guided and influenced. Without the identification of these shared qualities, it would be hard-pressed to develop a unified culture within any organization or even society.


How well are your organizational values known throughout the company?

Returning to my observation of the different but similar pictures in the lobby, I noticed that each picture displayed values for the organization. This is great, right? I thought it was a good idea to have these values listed in the lobby for everyone to see, regardless of whether the viewer may be employees or visitors, like myself. Honestly, this is a great idea and similar pictures should also be placed near the back door to the business in case any employees use it instead of the front door - I’m a firm believer that every person throughout the organization should regularly be reminded of what the organizational mission and values are.


Here’s the problem though - each of the 3 or 4 pictures listed different values! As I stood there reading and re-reading each picture and the organizational values, my mind went in a million different directions. I admit, I tend to over-think things and with this, I couldn’t help but think about how these listed values were connected and how they were different. 


Within the values section of each picture, there was a listed word, such as “CARE” or “RESPECT”, etc. Of course, these words were acronyms for other values, actions, behaviors, etc., that the company espoused. Although these acronyms were relatively short, when you broke them down into what they stood for, you ended up with a fairly lengthy list of values.


Can you and your employees quickly recite your company values?

As I was thinking about the different acronyms and what they stood for, I couldn’t help but think about how many employees at this organization had these values memorized and could recite each one without fail. For that matter, I even questioned whether the leadership of the organization could list all of these values from memory. I seriously doubt any of them could…at least not from memory. 


It never ceases to amaze me how we all tend to complicate things. It’s almost as if we’re trying to showcase our talent, position, or sophistication by making things abstract and convoluted. Throughout my years of teaching, one of the things that I tried my best to do was to break things down into very simple, easy-to-understand, and remember concepts for students to remember - this was especially true when dealing with anything theoretical. While I’m sure there were times when I failed at this, at least I understood that for others to understand and be able to apply difficult concepts and processes, they first had to understand, remember, and be able to recall things with relative ease. 


When it comes to organizations though, it’s not unusual for simplicity to be cast aside in the process of seeking complexity. This makes no sense whatsoever! Our mission statement and company values are supposed to guide the behaviors of everyone within the organization, so why complicate this? Why make it so obscure that our employees can't understand, much less recite, our organizational mission and values? This is so counterintuitive to what a business and its leadership should want. 



Are your organizational values creating company dysfunction?

While none of the values listed in the pictures in the lobby appeared to contradict each other, I couldn’t help but question whether the sheer extent of these values may cause discord within the organization itself. For instance, what would happen if one department in this organization believed in and remembered the values from one picture while another department only remembered the values from another picture? Would these two departments still be able to operate in cooperation with each other and be on the same page in their pursuits?


As I think about this, playing football comes to mind as a possible example of what might happen in this scenario. In football, every person on the team must be on the same page and understand the core mission to succeed. Naturally, the goal is to progress the ball down the field and ultimately score a touchdown. But what happens if half the offense believes that the upcoming play is going to be a run while the other half thinks it’s going to be a pass play? Needless to say, the outcome isn’t great - especially for the quarterback!


This same type of situation happens when you have a company where half the employees remember this set of values while the other half remembers a different set of values - they’re not on the same page! The irony of this is that, especially in this case of multiple pictures identifying different values, neither half may be in the wrong! 


Why is this important or even a concern? A vast majority of conflicts and toxicity within an organization are initially caused by miscommunication or a lack of communication - in other words, individuals or departments not being on the same page! What impact would this have on your organization and how it serves its customers, patients, or clients? 


Are you creating simplicity or confusion?

As an organizational leader, what are you trying to create within your company? We all want to be successful but sometimes we make the journey to success more difficult. As company leaders, our job is to make it easy for our customers, clients, and patients to do business with us - this is mentioned in a plethora of marketing and sales books. What is often neglected though is that it is also our duty to ensure that we remove as many obstacles and barriers as possible for our employees and co-workers to be successful within our organization. 


Success and productive performance do not happen in an environment of confusion. This can only happen from a point of clarity and pinpoint accuracy which is part of organizational strategy. Unfortunately, when organizations suffer due to workers not understanding the company values, it’s frequently the employees themselves who pay the prices through a lack of raises, lack of promotions, demotions, or terminations. Yet the problem could be a strategic one in that company leadership has created confusion in terms of organizational values. So which are you? Are you creating an environment of simplicity where everyone is aware of the company's mission and values? Or are you the sole source of confusion and dysfunction within your organization?


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