To achieve culture change, you don’t want to be scared of the conflict between values. When people know your values as an organization, but you don’t see those values being lived out, the problem is likely one of two invisible conflicts within change.
Culture Change Not Working? Start Here
Hey, it’s David and you’re listening to leadership without Losing your soul, your source for practical leadership, inspiration tools and strategies you can use to achieve transformational results without sacrificing your humanity or your mind in the process.
Hey, welcome to the show. I wanted to talk today about culture and specifically one of the barriers that gets in the way frequently when you’re trying to build culture and it might be rolling out new values in a team or all the way through an entire organization. So whatever role you serve and the way that you’re leading when you’re rolling out values and when you’re building culture, there is a specific challenge that gets in the way and many people ignore it. Basically what we’re talking about is conflict between values. When you’re going to build a good corporate culture or team culture, you don’t want to ignore the conflict between values. So what am I talking about here?
Well, when it comes to building a great corporate culture, one of the most common frustrations that we’ll hear from senior leaders and executives is, something like, “we involved everybody, we worked together, we defined our values, and we talk about them regularly. People seem to appreciate the messaging. And yes, we saw changes at the start, there was effort there, but now it feels like we’ve stagnated. It’s like people tried and then stopped.” So if you can feel their pain and you did do a fantastic job of thinking about your culture and engaging the whole team or the whole organization and defining the values, maybe now everyone can recite the values and define them, but there hasn’t been a true culture change. What’s going on is that invisible barrier, that conflict. So getting back to culture, our favorite definition of culture, if you listen to the show for a while, you know, this comes from marketing guru Seth Godin, and he says that culture is simply people like us do things like this.
When people know and embrace your values, but you don’t see those values being lived out, the problem is likely one of these two invisible conflicts. The first kind of conflict is a conflict between the values themselves and the second conflict is between the stated values and the leaders practiced values. So let’s look at this first conflict, the conflict between the values themselves. This is very common and frequently ignored. Let’s say two of your values are quality and speed. The conflict between the two is obvious. If you spend more time on quality, you go slower. If you go faster, you’ll likely make more mistakes in quality. Here’s another common example of this kind of value clash. Many organizations we’ve worked with will have something along the lines of a human-centered work-life balance value, but they also have a, we do what it takes kind of value for work ethic
People genuinely want a human-centered workplace, and they also feel the pressure to beat their competition and please their customers through a strong work ethic. And those can clash. If you have say, five values, quick math in terms of the pairing, that’s a potential for 10 different values clashes. So those are examples of clashes in between the values. Now let’s talk about the conflict between the values and practiced values. So this is the second type of values conflict, and it will cripple your culture and undermine employee confidence. It’s a classic case of saying one thing but doing another. However, this isn’t just pure hypocrisy. I know it’s easy to dismiss it that way, but it’s not always just hypocrisy. Often there are underlying reasons that leaders or managers don’t fully embrace the new value.
For example, a manager’s bonus depends on the number of units shipped regardless of units returned. But the value is a quality value that says we prize quality, the manager’s going to undermine that quality value, focus on volume, and pressure their team members who do try to go slower and focus on quality. So you’ve got a built-in clash between the structure and how that manager is incentivized versus the value that’s there too. When you don’t address those kinds of conflicts, they will undermine your culture. People feel like they can’t win. If I do this, I get dinged over here. If I do that, I’m in trouble on this one. And those no-win scenarios frustrate people and zap their motivation. Pretty soon people just go back to doing the best they can to make it through. And your credibility suffers as all those shiny values are now just words on the wall.
So what do we do about all this to overcome these values clashes and build that great culture that you want? The solution here is straightforward. The solution to these invisible cultural barriers, these conflicts, is to talk about them, don’t ignore them, don’t hide from them. When you launch any kind of culture change, whether it’s new values or a new information system, you’re going to have challenges. You want to call those challenges out, shine a light on them, let everyone know you want to know about them and draw attention to those inevitable conflicts. That’s going to prepare people for the conflict. So it’s not a surprise. So that an employee that’s caught between two values can say, oh, this is what they were talking about. Let’s see, what should I do next? Instead of throwing up their hands and walking away in frustration.
Here are some specific ways you can deal with each kind of values conflict. Let’s start with that clash between values when you’ve got competing values like speed or quality. So first we want to acknowledge it. Don’t let the values conflict hide in the corner, shine a light on it. Have conversations about what they mean and what to do when they happen. And keep that conversation going as you move through the values rollout. Then you can use the next two steps as you’re continuing the conversation. Define success. If culture is people like us, do things like this, then what do people like us do when there’s a conflict between quality and speed? What does success look like? You can have those discussions together, get your team together and talk about it. Make it a focus of conversation. Rarely are you going to find a perfect solution to every values conflict. It’s more about optimizing and working together to talk about the interplay between the two that will help everyone understand how to incorporate quality and speed in their daily work. Where are the tradeoffs and when should we be making them the discussions about what it means to have a work-life balance and a strong work ethic? They’re gonna reveal new ways of doing your work that maybe you hadn’t thought about before. A lot of times those how can we conversations that combine two seemingly opposing values will lead to innovations and business process improvements. You’ll never get those innovations if you don’t have the discussions.
Another really powerful way to help with these kinds of conflicts between values, and it’s one of our favorites, is as you’re rolling out culture change or values initiatives have senior leaders tell stories about times that they faced this values clash and what they did, how they handle it. These stories bring the conflicts alive. People can sink their teeth. Oh, I can feel I can sense that I know what that looks like. It helps employees picture what it looks like to navigate the values. And those stories will help everyone see that there isn’t a perfect implementation of culture or values. Sometimes you have to make hard choices. So don’t shy away from that truth. Senior leaders’ stories will help everyone see what it means to make those choices in their work.
And then the final way you want to deal with these values clashes is to celebrate when you see optimal outcomes. Hopefully, you have a five-by-five communication plan we’ve talked about in past episodes, communicating key messages, and your value rollouts five times, five different ways. And hopefully, you’ve already got scheduled celebrations of people living out the values as part of that plan. If not, you definitely want to be looking for ways to celebrate people, not just for living out the values, but specifically who faced a values clash and found an inspiring way through it. Tell their stories and reinforce what success looks like in the real world and real life when they did it.
Now let’s shift our attention over to the second kind of clash when you’ve got a clash between the stated values and a leader’s practiced values. The do what I say, not what I do, kind of a thing. All right, so first again, we’re gonna start by acknowledging the conflict. We don’t wanna shy away from the fact that these conflicts will happen. That doesn’t mean they are a bad person, it’s part of life. It’s part of rolling out and changing culture. You’ll almost always have people make self-interested decisions that make perfect sense for them, but clash with your values. And the answer is not to just tell everyone. People will continue to do what makes sense to them. Rather than calling attention to these kinds of conflicts, the potential for them, you’re inviting everyone to look for them, look for the conflicts. So you might say something like, Hey, we’re not gonna be surprised when they happen. Instead, we’re going to look for areas where our structure doesn’t align with our values and fix it.
On top of this, you want to make it safe to find solutions. The best way I can illustrate this is recently we were working with a client who I’ll call Sue, and she has a significant need for improvements, process improvements and to eliminate some employee errors that could save the business millions and millions of dollars every year and help them be much more competitive, improve their standing in the industry, all of the above, right? But as she tried to identify improvement opportunities, she couldn’t do it. She was stymied, the employees would make a mistake and their immediate manager feeling performance pressures in a fast-paced business would berate them for the mistake with the goal of preventing it from happening again. And in that environment where mistakes were punished, rather than looked at as opportunities to improve things, Sue couldn’t have meaningful conversations about how to improve the systems that created the potential for the mistakes in the first place.
In the same way, when you first roll out new values or a major corporate culture change, you can make it safe to talk about resistance and ask your managers about the conflicts they see. If you listen carefully and with appreciation, you’ll learn where your systems and infrastructure undermine your values. And finally, you wanna practice accountability with celebration. As you listen and make needed structural changes, then it’s time for accountability. There might be a manager or leader who just disagrees with the values or doesn’t wanna live by them, and that’s okay. It’s better to know and help them find an organization that’s better suited to their values. You get more of what you celebrate and encourage. So at the same time, be sure to celebrate leaders and managers who bring those conflicts to light, help to solve them and incorporate the values in their work. Fixing your systems, helping misaligned leaders to go, and celebrating leaders who address values clashes, reinforce your commitments to culture and those visible examples send the message that you really mean it. This isn’t just talk, you’re not afraid of it, it’s gonna happen. Let’s deal with it.
So that’s the second kind of values clash. With both of these, when you’re willing to do the work and address these values and culture conflicts, people will come with you. We’ve worked with organizations that have masterfully navigated these kinds of conflicts, and the results really are inspiring. The annual values awards have way more meaning in genuinely reinforcing the corporate culture. So there you go. Expect clashes in values. Expect clashes with actual behavior. Talk about them, bring them to light. Have the conversations reinforce and celebrate success when you see it happening. And be the leader you want your boss to be.