“Identifying and applying ethical values is an important step to creating a highly moral climate.” (Johnson, 2012, p. 334)
Values are so important because they are a part of the organization’s core ideology—the “central identity or character” of the organization (p. 334). While many aspects of the organization are often changing and growing, the values should remain the same and serve as an ethical compass for the organization by guiding employee behavior.
As leaders, we set the tone for our employee’s behavior. “Leaders are the ethics officers of their organizations, casting light or shadow in large part through the example they set” (Johnson, 2012, p. 318). Essentially, leaders need to serve as ethical role models to their followers by embodying the organizational values through word and deed.
As was previously discussed in our blog post about Character, the second C of leadership, leaders must be “clear about their personal values and beliefs…[and] keep people and projects on course by behaving consistently with these values and setting an example for how they expect others to act (Kouzes & Posner, 2006, p. 3). Nothing undermines an organization’s values quicker than a hypocritical leader. If I claim that “teamwork” is one of our values, but I regularly take all of the credit and blame others for my mistakes, others will quickly recognize that my true value is “self-serving.”
In contrast, leaders should embody the organizational values in such a way that by following in their example, their employees should also act with the organization’s values in mind. Successful implementation of ethical values means employees “learn to govern their own behavior by following these same principles” (Johnson, 2012, p. 329).
While walking the talk in this way is incredibly important, it is surprisingly not enough in this instance. Leaders must also talk the talk. Words without action may be meaningless, but action without words can easily be overlooked in the busy, sometimes hectic, marketplace. Therefore, as the ethics officers for their organizations, leaders must continually communicate the organization’s values to their employees. This involves: (a) discussing the values with one’s team so everyone is clear on what they are and what they mean; (b) highlighting how new initiatives and goals reflect the organization’s values; (c) linking performance reviews to the values; and (d) mentioning them in everyday conversations.
For example, if one your organizational values is “innovation,” you could introduce the implementation of a new sales software system as such, “As part of our dedication to thinking outside the box and trying new things to propel us forward, we will be implementing a new software system to help us keep track of our sales records. As we implement the program, please let us know what works, what is challenging, and any solutions or ideas you have for even better application and implementation.” Doing so explains the decision to use the new software in light of the organization’s value around innovation and also invites the employees to engage in innovation by suggesting new and better ways to use the program.
Overall, what is most important to note is that communicating the values cannot be once and done. They cannot be mentioned one time and then be hung on the wall to die. Instead, communication must be on-going. Employees need to be reminded of the importance of organizational values and their ethical responsibilities through the leader’s words and actions on a consistent basis.
- Johnson, C.E. (2012). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2003). Student leadership practices inventory. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.