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In times of high pressure, aspirational core values can seem entirely impractical. Who has time for being “bold,” “innovative” or “connected” when they’re slammed by a barrage of emails and threatened by volatility or disruption?
In these situations, values are relegated to vinyl stickers on an office wall or words tucked away on the About Us page of a website. How many people can recall their company’s values, never mind using them as a blueprint for decision-making and the basis for team alignment and trust?
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 set by the executive — not the marketing — team.
Leadership values shape employee behavior. If leaders value financial performance over all else, employee well-being, environmental impact or social connectivity may be neglected. Values contagion is a real phenomenon, and no training initiative will shift your culture if leadership values are misaligned or inconsistent. Employees roll their eyes at what they perceive as phony company values when leaders don’t walk the talk.
Values in distress
Distress arises when there is a misalignment of values. For example, imagine that you’re working late nights and sacrificing family time. If a core value is family, you’ll start feeling resentful toward work. Or perhaps you’re spending too much time caring for your family when a core value is productivity. You might then resent your family. There is no right or wrong; your values profile is entirely unique.
In life’s journey, purpose is your North Star and values are the flame lighting your way. The terrain may be challenging, but knowing what is important and acting in alignment reduces ambiguity and increases fulfillment. You’ll have a reason “why” and a torch to guide your “how.” If the flame of your values burns low, you — and your team — may feel lost. In an environment of uncertainty, we activate ancient survival mechanisms, including our negativity bias, to secure our safety.
Are values purely cognitive?
The missing link in values alignment is our physiological state. When distressed, under threat or unwell, our values shift from aspirational and collaborative to primal and protective.
There’s an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala. It scans input arriving via our senses and triggers strong emotions to help protect us from perceived threats. This can save our life if a lion wanders into the office. It saved the lives of our ancestors who navigated challenging environments where direct threats to survival were the norm. Fast forward to modern life, where inboxes overflow, amplified by pressure to perform and conflicting demands. We are our worst enemies because to manage complexity, we need to be calm, present and energized — yet we’re sleeping less and worrying more than ever.
The flame of our values is reduced to embers under chronic distress. Our window of tolerance shrinks. We become a less human version of ourselves. Driven by basic survival emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, craving or disgust, the potential for creativity and collaboration is impaired. Our values downgrade to surviving rather than thriving.
Find your baseline of calm
Values-based leadership requires deliberately shifting from fight, flight or freeze into a state of calm coherence: body, emotion and mind. How do you establish calm? Create space in your day. Schedule micro-breaks. Use breathing techniques, meditation, and time in nature to reboot your nervous system.
Train yourself out of habituated busyness by silencing your phone when it is not in use. Your phone is a tool, don’t mistake it for a friend. It is an extractive technology, and it is mining your attention.
Polyvagal theory suggests that our nervous system is capable of progressing from calm to playfulness, trust, and high performance. In high performance, you can purposefully ride the edge of fight-flight while in a deeply immersive flow state. Here lies the golden zone for values-based action — and a 500% productivity boost.
When you trust your environment, yourself and your team, you unlock psychological safety and a shift towards a values-driven culture.
Values as habits
Your values should be actionable. Instead of words describing desired 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 kind person do? Simply, they treat others with respect, care and compassion.
So we 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 positioned cues or reminders. As a kind person, I might choose gratitude as a micro-habit worth implementing. So I set a reminder at 4 p.m. every day to reach out to one person in appreciation, care or support. With repetition, this is embedded in my operating system as a habit. I consistently send positive ripples across my circle of influence. I’m becoming the person I aspire to be through targeted, decisive and practical action.
We are the sum of our habits. Even a company value like innovation requires a web of supporting practices, ranging from vitality to goal-setting. Leaders valuing innovation need to allocate space for it to emerge. Habits such as relaxation, which shifts us out of fight-flight mode, contemplation and play will support innovation.
Follow a phased approach, upscaling the habits that work. Build rhythm in your work and life.
Instead of espousing aspirational values, lead with values-based behavior. You’ll transform yourself, your team and your business one micro-habit at a time.
Remember that the most significant risk to values is distress — so stay calm. Be the change you wish to see in your organization. Nurture your values flame so that you burn bright instead of burning out. Light the way, and your team and culture will follow.