Crisis and Culture

The crisis endured by the citizens of KZN and Gauteng last week revealed that we still have a long road ahead of us to truly get this country to where it needs to be. I don’t’ want to comment too much on that as I am relatively ill equipped to do so.

What I am more interested in is how the crisis revealed how we as human beings are wired and how this is good news for corporate culture in South Africa.

As I mentioned in the chapter that I wrote for ‘The Book Every Leader Should Read’, CRISIS is one of three an organising signals which moves people from proximity to community. My theory was that crisis, along with the other two organising signals; challenge and cause, are each underpinned by a set of values. It’s those values which connect us in the midst of the organising signal. As long as individuals connect with the values, and those values are shared with others, those individuals are primed to connect and express the values together. For example, one of the values which crisis is underpinned by is survival, or self preservation. Look at what happened when our communities felt threatened. They rallied very quickly, organised themselves, submitted to leadership and protected their own. There have been incredible stories all over social media about the unity and cohesion we have seen through this time.  

What does this show us about human beings?

When we connect around shared values, we work together wholeheartedly to achieve results.

Let’s talk about the easy values for a moment. Groups of people gather for a run because of their value of fitness, health or stretching themselves to the next level. Groups of people gather around the value of adventure, going on hikes or getting away for the weekend. Groups of people gather together for dinner to express the value of connection and relationship.

We gather and connect around shared values. To use corporate terminology; when we are connected by shared values we are highly engaged and involved, contributing our strengths and talents toward collective goals. This is what every organisation is asking for.

Let’s look at last week. The raw reality is, looters gathered around shared values. Whether those values were (I’m not going to comment on any conspiracy theories) desperation, destruction, redemption, activism or self-preservation (in the case of hunger), the looters rallied and pressed on in their mission for up to three days. Behind the barricades, the communities gathered around shared values as well.  Last week may have been the one rare week where, despite the tragic consequences, the majority of the country was completely engaged with the task at hand, purpose driven and connected around a range of shared values. Last week showed us how we are wired. I believe we want to work with purpose. We want to rally around values we hold dear. We want to work together toward collective goals. And we have the potential within us to do just that.

What does this mean for organisations?

Organisations have to see themselves as an integral part of society. An organisation is, after all, a group of individuals who need to work together to achieve something. I have always described organisations as ‘mini cities’ where people from all walks of life gather for 9 hours. This is an incredible opportunity to foster unity and social cohesion organisastion by organisation.  The biggest take out for every leadership team out there should be this; your people will rally around shared values and achieve significant results.

But this is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be. The writing around values has been ‘on the wall’ for ages now. Yet many organisations have not been able to tap into the power of the collective as we have seen demonstrated in this crisis.  Imagine you could tap into that power? Imagine what it would mean for your culture? Imagine what it would mean for the levels of performance within your organisation? Imagine what it would mean for the emotional tone, the atmosphere at work? The stark reality is, many of your employees were more engaged rounding up looters and manning barricades than they are at work.  

I believe that’s because we are still paying lip service to the idea of shared values and good culture.

Lip service is the product of two things.

  1. Habitual ways of doing business.
  2. A leadership team who has not bought into the idea of shared values.

Business used to operate in such a way where people were made to ‘leave their emotions at the door’ and do what they are required to do. The relationships between man and machine was, at the end of the day, transactional. As the owner of the business, I provide you a role. You fulfill your contractual obligation and get remunerated. That’s it. A few people owned the business, and everyone else worked to make them and the shareholders a return on their investment. But what the leaders of those organisations missed was the fact that one’s work life is integral to who they are and how they live. Employees weren’t just looking for a contractual role and a pay check. They wanted to belong, they wanted to contribute, they wanted to grow, they wanted to generate wealth, buy nice things and feed their families, perhaps go on a holiday. They wanted dignity, respect and a place where they could share ideas and voice an opinion. They didn’t want to simply be seen and not heard. The only voices that mattered were the voices of those in leadership positions. And very few leadership teams were interested in anything other than targets, revenue and profit. Because that’s what the shareholders demanded. Now I get this. I truly do. I buy into the idea that organisations need to be profitable. I buy into the idea that a shareholder is looking for a return and if they don’t receive it, could very well look elsewhere. My opinion is, however, that if we tap into the power of the collective that we have seen this past week, then no shareholder will have to worry about their return. And people will thrive while they deliver it.

What are shared values?

Perhaps it’s best to start with what are NOT shared values. The list below is a list of things that your population are not going to gather around and contribute toward.

A shared value is not:

  1. Making someone else rich.
  2. Being treated as a number or a widget who is there purely to fulfill a function.
  3. Being referred to as a ‘subordinate’ and being treated as a B grade citizen because of the lack of a leadership title.
  4. Working the same role for 40 years without improving ones standard of living.

A shared value is more like:

  1. Wealth generation. Everyone wants to be able to live a good lifestyle, put food on the table, buy nice things and go on a holiday.
  2. Belonging.
  3. Growth and Development.
  4. Achieving results and performing (people like to win).
  5. Psychological Safety.
  6. Inclusivity.
  7. Fun.
  8. The list goes on.

The opportunity here is for an organisation to tap into the shared values to activate a strong culture and drive high performance.

Which organisation are you?

In answering this question, don’t look to the values booklet you have developed or the well-designed values branding on the wall. That’s not where the rubber hits the road. Look to the streets. What’s happening in your corridors or in your zoom rooms? Look to the tone of your communications from your leadership team. Intention is one thing, but actions are an entirely different thing. This has to be authentic as the lived experience of all employees is not found in your employee value proposition, but rather in the daily actions of your leadership team and the colleagues. We have to put our ear to the ground to truly understand what the ‘actual’ versus ‘documented’ values are. Thankfully values are expressed through behaviours, so you only have to pay attention to find out where you stand.

What is required to create a culture of contribution toward shared values?

Start with your leaders.

The best place to start is to get into the room with your leadership team and thrash out whether or not you are going to take values seriously. Living out a set of values is not easy and requires daily intention and commitment. Many leaders see this as a distraction. But it has to be the first step. They are the ‘perceived most powerful’ in their area of influence. No matter what your marketing or communications department has to say, people will take their lead from those who lead. This is not a once-off conversation, but something that is worth doing regularly.

What are our values? How should we be living them out? Where are we missing the mark? Who does not feel aligned? How to lead more effectively as a collective?

Leadership, as you all know is both a privilege and a responsibility. Let’s treat it as such.

Choose and clarify your values.

Too many organisations choose too many values. Right now, what three values do you believe your people would organize themselves around? Leave out the common baseline values such as respect, honesty, integrity etc.  These are basic human values which we need to foster within our culture regardless of whether they are on the wall or not. One of our values is, for example, pathfinder. It’s about forging as new path, creating new ways of doing things, pioneering into the future. We don’t want to be followers. We want to be leaders. This is inspiring to our tribe. We gather around it and some of our most engaged moments have been when we are developing a new product or conference experience. While we live out the value of pathfinding, we do so with respect and honesty. That’s a given. Which values will inspire your people right now? Take it to the next level. Look at your story and see what’s in there. Differentiate yourself with values which yield the power to connect people and catalyse engagement.

Clarify your values.

Each value needs a descriptor which clearly shows how this value should show up at work. What does it mean to live the values on a daily basis? Values are broad and can be interpreted in so many different ways. Why make values ambiguous? Just make them clear and simple. This is the value, and this is how it should show up every day. Involve people in articulating this so that it represents the collective. At the end of the day, employees are in essence voicing how they want to behave, what they are willing to commit to and how they want to interact with each other.

Consider your policies.

Values are not just lived out in behaviors, but in your policies and procedures as well. I was amazed at how quickly communities organized themselves into systems. Rosters were formed, communication channels were set up. We designed our own procedures so that we could live out our values. This is critical. Too often values are reserved for the ‘soft’ side of business but don’t show up in our remuneration strategies, our recruitment mechanisms, in the way we do recognition, design leave policies, or handle disciplinaries. Your whole organisation needs to gather around these values. It has to become part of your wiring. This requires a bold new direction, but the time has come for fresh policies and fresh new ways of doing things to emerge. This is the time to show the world that your organisation is the place to be.

Equip your leaders to live and lead the values.

As already mentioned, leaders are the ‘perceived most powerful’ people within your organisation. Everyone will take their cue from them. Just like parents, the children watch how they behave. They can say one thing, but if they model something different the behaviors trump the words. The age old saying ‘people join brands and leave managers’ rings true. People leave organisations because of how they are led. As soon as your organisation decides on its core values, it sets itself up for hypocrisy should the leaders not actively demonstrate those values daily. Equip them to do so by giving them the tools that they need. Continue to have conversations around the expression of the values. Engage with your leaders around their challenges in living out the values. Keep up the focus and the momentum.

Equip your people to live the values.

The responsibility, however, does not fall squarely on the shoulders of leadership. All employees want to and need to contribute. Create the space for all who work within your walls to connection emotionally with the values. Let them explore them and talk about them, wrestle with them and grapple with what it means to live them daily. Then give them the tools to do so. Passion sometimes needs to learn how to express itself. Many will be able to share personal stories of how they have lived out the values already in their own personal lives. Now we are connecting stories.

Hold everyone accountable.

Someone once said that your culture is defined by the ‘worst behavior you allow’. That’s the tricky nature of shaping and sustaining good culture. It’s all behavior based. Values underpin how we behave. If we let the wrong behavior slide, then we erode the integrity of the value. Your values need to be placed at the top of the pile. All people, no matter their position, should be held accountable (following empowerment) to the living of the values. The erosion of trust in the leadership of our country is due to the fact that they don’t live out the values written in our constitution. We hear it in speeches and on political campaigns, but we don’t see it lived out in action. This led us directly into this crisis. We want to see those who go against what matters most to our society held accountable.

Share stories.

It’s one thing hearing about a value and how it can be lived out. It’s a completely different thing when you see how it is being lived out by others. Document stories around how people live out the values. Celebrate those people. Celebrate the value. Connect and share the stories with the whole organisation. The flood of negative media created by the crisis was counteracted by the positive stories coming out of our communities. Story is a powerful way to inspire people and fuel hope. These stories give people a handle on what counts, on what is significant, on what matters to the business and the leadership team.

This past week has shown me that we as humans are fundamentally a group of people who want what’s best for ourselves and each other. The organisations of tomorrow are the ones who are able to tap into human desire, create space for it to thrive and at the same time, do business and achieve significant results. We’ve seen it’s possible in how people acted in crisis. Let’s turn those actions into ones which contribute toward a better future for our businesses and for all our citizens.

Author: Travis Gale

Image: Gabe Pierce

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