When values become behaviours, behaviours become culture

by Jun 14, 2022Culture0 comments

An often-untapped resource within a team is the ability to transform values into behaviours. People’s core beliefs often provide a deep source of inspiration, and every company has a rich selection to draw on.

On an instinctive level, this makes sense. It’s often inspiring listening to people’s worldviews, but one thing to be wary of as an executive is providing your own – without being willing to transform this into actual behaviour.

There’s often a massive disconnection between the values that the company’s culture claims to honour and the ones it actually does.

Think about the proliferation of mission statements, motivational mottos, and other pick-me-ups in the last couple of decades. If each of these did what it claimed, we would be the most highly motivated people on the face of the earth.

Of course, often these internal beliefs utterly fail to be transformed into tangible behaviours. This means externalising what you’re thinking into real-world actions that can be judged and assessed by others.

This process of externalising, of making things concrete, makes people vulnerable – because it brings with it a commitment to the real world and a fear of failure … especially in front of your peers.

The all-too-frequent gap between people’s intentions and their actions prompted psychologist Brené Brown to lament, in her seminal book Dare to Lead:

The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.

Inside our heads, we can exercise virtually complete control over our moral self-image. We’re adept at hiding all sorts of inconsistencies in our own morality, as well as overlooking our failure.

But by empowering our internal beliefs part of the company’s tangible, suddenly our promises have nowhere to hide. Their success or failure are visible for all to judge.

This shift from a concealed position to an exposed one is, of course, the essence of vulnerability. Operationalising our values, in Brown’s term, brings with it a heavy burden of fear. But that fear isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength.

The ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ slogan, taken from Susan Jeffers’ 1986 book, has become a cliché – but for good reason. That inflection point Brown and Jeffers are both aware of – when our internal beliefs suddenly burst forth into a world we can’t control – is one of the defining factors of being human.

Yes, there is always the possibility that our efforts to make our beliefs tangible will fail. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s welcomed.

That’s not to say that failing to bring a plan to fruition is a good thing. Of course, failure is still a negative experience, or else it wouldn’t be failure.

But the idea of success, when realistically framed, contains many individual acts of failure before the endpoint is reached.

It’s strange that we forget this so quickly in the context of a company. After all, it’s second nature in our everyday lives outside the office.

We know the importance of failure when we’re learning (or teaching!) a complex new skill, such as riding a bike.

If we got angry at the child venturing out on two wheels for the first time for falling off and grazing their knees, we’d be deeply misguided.

But they dared to fail when making their behaviour tangible. And they did fail, for a long time, before they succeeded.

But for some reason, this sensibly modest approach can go out the window when it comes to our own behaviour.

Because we’re often scared of finding out the distance between our ideals and our behaviour, we keep these thoughts confined to ourselves. Like an unread mission statement or an unopened book of inspirational quotes, our internal values will fail to help others unless they’re brought out of hiding and tested.

One of a company’s roles is to invest enough trust in its team members to provide a ‘safe space’ for people’s internal values to become tangible actions. And, when the inevitable failures occur along the line, the team members have the support they need to get right back on that bike and wobble down the path.