Transforming leadership through values engagement

Few consultants were brave enough to broach the subject of employees' personal values in a business setting just three decades ago. Since then, scores of studies have been conducted on employee engagement and transformed leadership. The composition of today's workforce is also significantly different than it was 30 years ago. Organizations face a potential shortage of talent. As a result, values are being discussed by both mainstream media and executive teams across the globe. So it seems fitting, in light of daily headlines like "What do your employees want?" and "What makes the Millennials tick?" that we revisit why personal values matter, how they differ across the workforce — or not — and what organizations can do to capitalize on their power.
Why do personal values matter?         ¼br /> The beliefs, attitudes, and values that individuals hold frame their perceptions of the world. Personal values shape daily decisions and actions — whether the people who hold those values realize it or not.
Why should organizations care?
Employees' personal values influence a number of things that today's organizations list at the top of their workforce wish list:
Commitment: Posner and Schmidt's 1992 study revealed that employees who were not clear on their personal values were alienated from their work, even if they were clear on their employer's core values. The implication: Your organization may effectively communicate its guiding principles but, if your employees aren't tuned-in to their own motivators, they may not be able or willing to engage and contribute fully toward your organization's goals.
Engagement and retention: If your employees don't know what they're looking for, they're unlikely to find it working for your organization. The result: They'll blame you for lack of career opportunities, disengage because their work isn't meaningful, and take their skills and knowledge elsewhere as they search in vain for job satisfaction and personal growth.
Leadership effectiveness: To inspire others, leaders must transform themselves to be able to appeal to the hearts and minds of employees. Research indicates that they need a baseline of credibility and competence plus the ability to bring their personal passion and enthusiasm into their messages. Therefore, to be effective, transformed leaders first need to understand what drives and inspires them personally.
What does today's workforce value?

Latest exploration of more than 6,000 employees and leaders in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific reveals that the personal values most often identified as most important are family happiness, achievement, integrity, health and economic security.
Throughout this decade's rollercoaster ride through the boom and bust, terrorist attacks, economic upturns, and threats of recession, research by BlessingWhite indicates that these core values have remained constant. In our experience, what has changed is the commitment of individuals to make deliberate choices that align with their values. Since 9/11 in the US, for example, trasnformed leaders have described the need to step back, re-evaluate, and make changes to ensure that their work life actually fits with what they say they value.
Similarities on the surface…
The values listed above make it into the top 5 for both men and women, although women are slightly more likely to list family happiness as a top value: 61% of women selected this value compared to 53% of men.
And despite the incessant chatter about generational differences, the analysis by BlessingWhite indicates few substantial variations across age groups. Of note:

  • Family happiness was the most commonly selected value for all ages except for employees younger than 24 (where it took second place to achievement).
  • Health and economic security, perhaps not surprisingly, did not make it onto the top 5 for employees under 24. Affection and friendship did.
  • Again, perhaps not surprisingly, health appears to be increasingly more important as employees hit age 55 and older.

But employees are not that similar.
Don't draw any conclusions yet.This list reflects abstract labels. Personal values are intangible terms defined by the individuals who hold them. It's those personal definitions that drive employee actions and decisions. The individuals who described family happiness in the terms below are likely to make different choices, for example, when offered a job that requires travel:

  • Making the most of our family's time together and creating a safe, supportive environment to thrive in when I'm not there.
  • Spending as much time as possible at home; minimizing travel and late nights.
  • Providing all the comforts and stability I did not have growing up.

What does this mean for organizations?
Be wary of demographic categories. As much as it may be useful to understand the contrasting experiences that have influenced employees of different generations or cultures, remember that every employee comes to work with a unique set of motivators.
Be clear on what the organization stands for. Your organization can't shape employees' personal values, but you can make it easier for employees to recognize if their values align with the organization's. Embed your core values throughout your workplace practices, such as onboarding and performance management. Reinforce them with rewards, promotions, and resource allocation. Make sure your transformed leaders model the values in their behaviors.
Encourage dialogue about where the two sets of interests intersect. This is a leadership responsibility. Transformed leaders at all levels need to help employees:

  • Think through what matters most to them.
  • Translate the organization's values ("what does innovation look like in my day-to-day work?").
  • Find ways to satisfy their personal values in the work they do, the conditions of their job, and the career choices they make.

Employee values are personal. Transformed leaders who get to know their team members personally are well-positioned to help their organization align and tap into the energy that employees carry with them to work each day.