If a company’s values are supposed to be more than just cheerful posters around the office, then how exactly are they meant to be used? And to what end?
This is the thought going through every executive’s mind when we talk about a ‘values-led’ organization or a ‘purpose-driven’ company.
HR colleagues know that purpose and values are critical to understanding their company’s ‘why,’ but sometimes struggle with how to connect employees to values as a ‘how.’
Certainly, purpose and values can be woven into many aspects of the Talent and Organizational Design functions including performance management, rewards and recognition and job design. But there’s still a critical component missing – how to unlock and unleash ‘values as behaviors’ within a company.
How do we help employees to use these core elements of our organization’s ‘social contract’ to guide the way they perform their roles and relate to each other every day?
How do we use purpose and values to connect employees to the big picture and then empower them to effectively contribute to achieving the businesses’ goals?
Making values 'real' requires consistent communication.
Often I hear leaders say that they need to ‘communicate better,’ when what they mean is ‘broadcast more’ information to employees. Unless one of your values is ‘Command and Control,’ this kind of behavior modeling is unlikely to yield the desired results.
Companies powered by ‘knowledge workers’ require a more sophisticated and nuanced approach to connecting employees to purpose and values so that they can apply those principles to their roles and relationships in a meaningful way.
And the truth is, every company is powered by ‘knowledge workers.’ Not everyone is an engineer, programmer, or analyst, but employees in every business require context to make good decisions every day at work. Anyone working in construction or forestry knows that an employee’s ability to understand a situation and make very smart decisions quickly can mean the difference between life and death.
Purpose and values provide an excellent framework for creating this understanding, but how do we communicate effectively with so many different kinds of employees, in different industries, geographies, generations, tenures, capabilities and performing different functions and roles?
The power of strategic storytelling
Fortunately, there is a ‘silver bullet’ that comes in as many different shapes, sizes, colors and formats as there are contexts in need of a communication solution. It’s not an app or a new technology, in fact it’s been tried and tested since the dawn of civilization.
Storytelling is deeply ingrained in our human psyche as a means of understanding the world and then making decisions about how to navigate it – we’ve only fairly recently begun to understand the neuroscience that explains how organizations can truly harness this tool to translate values into behaviors that enable employees to powerfully contribute to achieving business goals.
When people listen to well-crafted stories scientists have discovered that their brains ‘light up’ as they follow the narrative. In fact, all subjects brains ‘light up’ in very consistent patterns. As they listen, hormones and neurotransmitters like dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin are produced – each has a specific role to play in connecting the listener to the story’s dramatic arc.
The story’s ability to stimulate the connection between empathy and oxytocin in the listener produces a particularly notable effect –at the end of hearing a story people with higher levels of oxytocin in the body are consistently more likely to take ‘pro-social’ actions, like donating money to charity.
The building blocks of behavior change
Think of these pro-social actions as the building blocks of behavior change. When our storytelling weaves in our company’s purpose and values, we can extrapolate that our employees will, over time, learn to demonstrate those values as behaviors.
The age-old leadership and management mystery of ‘how to get our employees to do what we want them to do’ has, in large part, been solved. And, the answer is the exact opposite of the top-heavy, hierarchical, command-and-control approach that has long been the norm. The research on creating a culture of purpose and psychological safety where leaders are vulnerable and human has been well documented.
Strategic storytelling actually changes brain chemistry – this is a powerful system of eliciting consistent desired behaviors from employees that is also respectful, empowering and gives your people an opportunity to innovate and co-create more effective solutions for your business.
Developing and implementing this strategic storytelling system – what I call Values IRL – creates a consistent, immersive, dynamic experience for employees that can help crack the code of core people challenges like recruitment, retention, productivity, performance, engagement and safety.
Values IRL is not a one-and-done exercise; it has to become like brushing your teeth. Fortunately, it’s an ideal complement to all the regular people processes, programs and campaigns that already exist within your company, including rewards and recognition, performance management, change programs, learning and development, and leadership communication.
This makes the opportunities for strategic storytelling nearly universal. No matter the size of your business, industry, or country, if you’re depending on your people to profit and grow then bringing your purpose and values to life – real life, every day, will be critical to your success.
Have questions about how you can bring Values IRL and strategic storytelling to your organization? Get in touch.
Victoria Dew is the Founder and CEO of Dewpoint Communications.