What Are Your Values – and How Do You Know?

Needham Accessible Reservoir Trail (NART)

In 2015, after evaluating the results of an employee satisfaction survey, our Town embarked on a formal employee engagement process. The focus areas of the program have ranged from the lofty: ensuring that every employee’s on-boarding experience is of the highest quality – to the more mundane: improving the dreaded travel reimbursement process. Our engagement strategies have evolved over the years depending on circumstances and the interests of the folks participating. In one recent iteration, we held a series of workshops culminating in a Town-wide vote on the description of our core values: Communication, Integrity, and Community.

Since the early days of the employee survey (memo to me: don’t implement employee surveys during the snowiest one-month period in recorded memory when employees are exhausted), the topic of communication has been the overriding theme. It goes without saying that integrity is the backbone of local government, and community is both what we are, and what we do. Once we identified the words, we began to wrestle with what to do with them.

Enter Bob Glazer, author and CEO of Acceleration Partners who was written up in the Boston Globe Magazine for his innovative approach to connecting with an all-remote workforce through an inspirational weekly email now called “Friday Forward.” I had never meet Bob, but the article said that he lived and worked in our town so I stalked him tracked him down and invited him to speak to our leadership team. He graciously accepted.

While affiliate marketing and local government are fairly different “mission-wise,” we do share the commonality that not all of our employees get to connect every day. Or, in some cases, ever. Given the traditional business week followed in many departments, and the 24/7 schedule in others, many employees never interact in person. Bob stressed the importance of connection through shared values. He challenged us to consider our core values, and how they are “operationalized” in our culture. In other words, if the Town’s core values exist only on stationery, how do employees and the public know if the values are being honored?

So challenged, our solutions team stepped right up. We had already identified the values – how hard could the next step be? Pretty hard, as it turns out. Brené Brown, in her latest book Dare to Lead, notes that organizational values are often “gauzy” – assessed in terms of aspirations rather than actual behaviors that can be taught, measured and evaluated. Our team reviewed the process outlined in her handy reference guide and got to work. The basic question for us was how to articulate what the value of communication might look like on a job description or performance review. If communication is our core value, how will we know if we are doing it right?

We organized an operationalizing values workshop with volunteers from our wider leadership team. Using the tools outlined in the guide, we separated into groups and brainstormed statements that all begin with “I” or “We.” The goal was to identify behaviors that support the value of communication. The responses that we received were categorized into the general groupings of teamwork, information sharing, empowerment, respect, and protocol.

Teamwork behaviors include statements like “I ask others with more knowledge to help me” and “I make sure that everyone who should be involved in a conversation is invited.” Information sharing behaviors include statements such as “I think of creative ways to get our message out” and “I provide clear and accurate information. ” For empowerment, participants suggested “I am empowered to ask questions” or “I take responsibility for asking for what I need, ” while the category of Respect led to “I am mindful of other people’s time,” and “I own up to my mistakes.” Finally, protocol statements sounded like “I will not reply all unless absolutely required” (this again!) and “I take the time to proofread email before sending.”

It became clear to us that the simple word “communication” may be too “gauzy” to adequately articulate our core value, and we will be meeting again soon to keep wordsmithing until we get it right. Then, it’s on to integrity and community. We found Bob Glazer just at the right time in our process, and we are forever grateful!

How about you? Has your organization identified its core values? Have you found interesting and creative ways to operationalize them? Please share! Let’s practice.

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