Leadership Lessons: Creating Absolute Clarity on Values

July 28, 2011

In my August column, I talked about the importance of organizational values. Most fire departments have gone to great lengths to define their mission, vision and core values. Some departments will frame these values and hang them on a wall. Some will display them proudly on their websites. But few departments will create absolute clarity on the organizational values through consistent communication and clarification. And the departments that do still neglect the most important element in clarifying values: they neglect to help firefighters define and clarify their own personal values.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! You’ve just crossed the line. Personal values? That’s just none of our business.” Actually, it is your business, because personal values clarity is directly related to organizational commitment levels. Most managers and leaders focus on organizational values, assuming that if they just push those more, people will eventually align themselves with the organization. Unfortunately, that is not accurate. If employees don’t have strong clarity on their personal values, they are unlikely to care about the organizational values. Additionally, low clarity on personal values results in lower commitment to the organization, and scientific studies have proven this to be true.

Here’s what the studies show: The highest levels of organizational commitment exist when there is high clarity on both personal values and organizational values. So when your department spends the time to really clarify the department values and facilitate the process of clarifying personal values, organizational commitment will be the highest.

The second-highest levels of organizational commitment exist when there is high clarity on personal values, but low clarity on organizational values. This shows us that personal values clarity is actually more important. Yet most organizations spend more time talking about the values of the organization instead of encouraging the discussion of personal values as well.

The absolute lowest levels of organizational commitment exist when there is low clarity on personal values and you would think low clarity on organizational values, right? Wrong! The lowest levels of organizational commitment exist when there is low clarity on personal values, but high clarity on organizational values. So clarifying and ingraining organizational values in firefighters will only increase their organizational commitment if you also make sure they have clarified their own personal values. Otherwise, if firefighters are walking around unsure of their own personal values, but are getting hammered with the organizational values, their commitment to the organization will decline.

You will actually hurt organizational commitment levels by continuing to reiterate organizational values without facilitating the process of reiterating personal values. You need to walk firefighters through the process of clarifying their own personal values and how those values relate to their jobs and align with the organizational values. One of the most effective ways to do this is through the mentoring process. If you don’t have a strong mentoring program in your department, you need to look at establishing one. It doesn’t matter what level you are at in the department; you can still mentor someone or be mentored. You don’t need to wait for a formal program to be established. Meeting with someone once a week for an hour to discuss important issues and share experiences is the basic foundation of a mentoring program.

It is in this mentoring process that you can define and articulate personal values. This is a great way to determine whether there is any inconsistency between personal values and organizational values. The mentoring process is also a great way to talk about how to live out your personal values and the organizational values on a daily basis. So when you are faced with a particular dilemma, you can talk about how your core values guide your decisions.

Most mentoring programs in fire departments focus on technical skills, policies, procedures and culture. I have seen very few that focus on personal and organizational values. Don’t get me wrong – the technical skills development is an important part of the mentoring process. But just remember this: most firefighters get hired and pass probation due to their technical skill level. But most firefighters get fired for a serious violation of a core value (like lying when under investigation or stealing).

Most fire departments have mastered the technical skills training programs. There needs to be a strong focus on mentoring in values, starting with the management team and working your way down the chain of command. When you do this, you will see organizational commitment increase while disciplinary issues decrease.

My next column will discuss how to use your core values to evaluate behavior. Stay tuned!

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