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In times of high pressure, ambitious core values can seem completely impractical. Who has time to be “bold”, “innovative” or “connected” when they are inundated 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 remember their company’s values, let alone use them as a blueprint for decision making and the basis for alignment and trust within the team?
Related: Want Success? Define your company values
How values are created in the workplace
Values are what matters. 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 determine the behavior of employees. If leaders prioritize financial performance over anything else, employee well-being, environmental impact, or social connectivity may be neglected. Value contagion is a real phenomenon, and no training initiative will change your culture if leadership values are misaligned or inconsistent. Employees look with their eyes at what they consider to be false company values when leaders don’t do what they say.
Values in need
Distress arises when there is a misalignment of values. For example, imagine working late at night and sacrificing time for your family. If a core value is family, you will hate work. Or maybe you spend too much time taking care of your family when productivity is a core value. You could then blame your family. There is no right or wrong; your value profile is completely unique.
On life’s journey, the goal is your pole star and its values the flame that illuminates your path. The terrain can be challenging, but knowing what’s important and acting in line reduces ambiguity and increases satisfaction. You have a reason “why” and a torch to guide your “how”. When the flame of your values burns low, you – and your team – can feel lost. In an environment of uncertainty, we activate old survival mechanisms, including our negativity bias, to ensure our safety.
Are values purely cognitive?
The missing link in the alignment of values is our physiological state. When we are upset, threatened, or unwell, our values shift from ambitious and collaborative to primary and protective.
There is an ancient part of the brain called the amygdala. It scans input that comes through our senses and triggers strong emotions to help protect us from perceived threats. This could save our lives if a lion walks into the office. It saved the lives of our ancestors who navigated challenging environments where immediate threats to survival were the norm. Fast forward to modern life, where inboxes are overflowing, amplified by performance pressures and conflicting demands. We are our worst enemies because to deal with complexity we need to be calm, present and energetic – but 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, craving or disgust, the potential for creativity and collaboration is compromised. Our values are relegated to survival rather than thriving.
Related: A set of core values makes corporate culture real
Find your baseline of calmness
Value-based leadership requires a conscious shift from fight, flight, or freeze to a state of calm coherence: body, emotion, and mind. How do you create peace? 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 the usual hustle and bustle by putting your phone on silent when not in use. Your phone is a tool, don’t confuse it with a friend. It’s an extractive technology and it grabs your attention.
Polyvagal theory suggests that our nervous system is able to evolve from calmness to playfulness, confidence and high performance. At high performance, you can drive purposefully on the edge of fight-flight while in a deeply immersive flow state. Herein lies the golden zone for value-based trading — and a 500% productivity boost.
When you trust your environment, yourself and your team, you unlock psychological security and a shift to a values-driven culture.
Values as habits
Your values must be usable. Instead of words describing desirable traits, they should be an identity you believe in. For example, if you value kindness, your identity is: I am a nice person. What does a nice person do now? Simply, they treat others with respect, care and compassion.
So we move on to building micro-habits around this identity. Start with what you can accomplish in 60 seconds or less. Prepare your environment by leaving strategically placed signals or reminders. As a nice person, I might choose gratitude as a micro habit worth implementing. So I set up a reminder at 4 p.m. every day to thank someone for appreciation, care, or support. On repeat, this is embedded in my operating system as a habit. I consistently send positive ripples through my circle of influence. I become the person I want to be through focused, decisive and practical action.
We are the sum of our habits. Even a business value like innovation requires a web of supportive practices ranging from vitality to goal setting. Leaders who value innovation need to create space for it to emerge. Habits such as relaxation, which take us out of fight-flight mode, contemplation and play will support innovation.
Take a phased approach and scale up the habits that work. Build rhythm in your work and life.
Related: The 8 Values Every Business Should Live By
Instead of embracing ambitious values, lead with values-based behavior. You transform yourself, your team and your company micro-habit at a time.
Remember that the greatest risk to values is fear – so stay calm. Be the change you want to see in your organization. Feed the flame of your values so that you burn brightly instead of burning out. Light the way and your team and culture will follow.