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In times of high pressure, ambitious core values can seem totally unachievable. Who has time to be ‘bold’, ‘innovative’ or ‘connected’ when beset by a deluge of emails and threatened by volatility or disruption?
In these situations, values are relegated to vinyl stickers on an office wall or hidden words on a website’s About Us page. How many people can remember their company values, let alone use them as a model for decision-making and the basis for team alignment and trust?
Related: Want to Succeed? Define your company values
How Workplace Values Emerge
Values are what is important. Whether you can articulate them clearly or not, you have values. Your company has values and they are defined by the management team – not by the marketing team.
Leadership values shape employee behavior. If leaders value financial performance above all else, employee well-being, environmental impact, or social connectedness may be overlooked. Values contagion is a real phenomenon, and no training initiative will change your culture if leadership values are misaligned or inconsistent. Employees roll their eyes at what they perceive to be false corporate values when leaders don’t follow through.
Values in distress
Distress arises when there is a misalignment of values. For example, imagine working late at night and sacrificing family time. If a core value is family, you will begin to resent work. Or maybe you’re spending too much time caring for your family when productivity is a core value. Then you might resent your family. There is no right or wrong; your values profile is quite unique.
In the journey of life, the goal is your North Star and the values are the flame that lights your way. The terrain can be challenging, but knowing what’s important and acting in alignment reduces ambiguity and increases fulfillment. You will have a reason “why” and a torch to guide your “how”. If the flame of your values goes out, you and your team may feel lost. In an environment of uncertainty, we activate old survival mechanisms, including our negativity bias, to keep us safe.
Are values purely cognitive?
The missing link in the alignment of values is our physiological state. In times of distress, threat or unease, our values shift from aspiration and collaboration to primacy and protection.
There is an old part of the brain called the amygdala. It analyzes information that comes in through our senses and triggers strong emotions to help protect us from perceived threats. It can save our life if a lion roams the office. It saved the lives of our ancestors who navigated harsh environments where direct threats to survival were the norm. Fast forward to modern life, where inboxes are overflowing, amplified by performance pressure and conflicting demands. We are our own worst enemies because to handle complexity we need to be calm, present and energetic – yet we sleep less and worry more than ever.
The flame of our values is reduced to embers under chronic distress. Our window of tolerance is shrinking. We become a less human version of ourselves. Driven by basic survival emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, envy or disgust, the potential for creativity and collaboration is impaired. Our values boil down to surviving rather than thriving.
Related: A Set of Core Values Is What Makes Company Culture Happen
Find your base of calm
Values-based leadership requires deliberately moving from fight, flight, or freeze to a state of calm coherence: body, emotion, and mind. How to establish calm? Create space in your day. Plan micro-breaks. Use breathing techniques, meditation, and time in nature to reboot your nervous system.
Practice getting out of the usual bustle by silencing your phone when not in use. Your phone is a tool, don’t confuse it with a friend. This is extractive technology, and it undermines your attention.
The polyvagal theory suggests that our nervous system is able to shift from calm to playful, confident and high performance. In high performance, you can deliberately navigate the edge of combat flight while in a deeply immersive state of flow. This is where the golden zone is for values-based action – and a 500% increase in productivity.
When you trust your environment, yourself, and your team, you unlock psychological safety and a shift to a values-driven culture.
Values as habits
Your values must be actionable. Instead of words describing desired character traits, they should be an identity you believe in. For example, if you value kindness, your identity is: I am a kind person. Now, what does a nice person do? Simply, they treat others with respect, care, and compassion.
We therefore proceed to build micro-habits around this identity. Start with what you can achieve in 60 seconds or less. Prepare your environment by leaving strategically placed markers or reminders. As a kind person, I might choose gratitude as a micro-habit to implement. So I set a reminder at 4 p.m. every day to reach out to someone in appreciation, care, or support. With repetition, this is built into my operating system as a habit. I constantly send positive waves in my circle of influence. I become the person I aspire to be through targeted, decisive and concrete actions.
We are the sum of our habits. Even a business value like innovation requires a network of supporting practices, from vitality to goal setting. Leaders who value innovation must allocate space for it to emerge. Habits such as relaxation, which takes us out of fight-flight mode, contemplation, and play will foster innovation.
Follow a gradual approach, improving the habits that work. Give rhythm to your work and your life.
Related: The 8 Values Every Business Should Respect
Instead of espousing aspirational values, lead with values-based behavior. You will transform yourself, your team, and your business one micro-habit at a time.
Remember that the biggest risk to stocks is distress – so stay calm. Be the change you want to see in your organization. Feed the flame of your values in order to shine instead of exhausting yourself. Light the way, and your team and your culture will follow.