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Values worth fighting for

6 easy steps to more values led leadership when the stakes are high

For many years, as part of our input to accelerate high performing team work, we’ve helped senior teams focus on their purpose, their values and their link to the purpose and values of their wider organisation.

Alignment of each human to the direction of travel of their own team is critical of course, in terms of mission and delivery. We need to know where we’re heading, if we’re going to get behind the plan. But beyond that, each person's sense of alignment to the values and behaviours of the team, is truly make or break; stay or leave. If we find ourselves within a team or organisation working at odds with our own personal values, there will eventually come a crunch.

We talk about values a great deal with clients, and right now, as we travel through the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we’re seeing the importance of ‘the values match’ really playing out. It’s impacting teams, organisations, marriages, friendships, families, cultures, governments, countries in a way that I don’t believe we’ve experienced in a generation or more.

What do I mean here by values?

All values are beliefs. The values that we hold are the strongest belief-set that we have. Our values are built across a lifetime and form the rule-book, charter, guidebook for how we live our lives. They are beliefs that we live as if facts. Beliefs that we hold as if universal truths. Beliefs that we’re willing to defend, to fight for, to fall out about, to insist upon, to build lives around. The values that we hold dearest are the ones that will inform the choices that we make every day, and especially the way we behave and react when the chips are down; when there’s pressure, stress, – when there’s, let’s say, a global pandemic - affecting our team.

No set of values is ‘better’ than another, (within reason) and yet someone else not agreeing with our values can feel like an outrage. If you’re having a big philosophical debate with someone and they say something that makes your hair stand on end, your blood boil, or if they evoke total bafflement in you as they defend their view which feels so foreign to you – that’s values at play.

Just before lockdown was announced in the UK, my husband and I were stuck in a repeating debate about the right response to social distancing. My values are informed by a spell as an ITU physiotherapist. I place respect for patients, medical facts, for the strangers working with dying patients, very highly. My husband wanted to keep seeing his family and gathering with grandparents. It’s the nearest we’ve come to a very major battle and I was willing to fight all day long, because in my mind there was no sane-minded person able to disagree with viral spread. My husband’s lead values are all around family. A great trait in a husband one might say.. but a mismatch for my global view at the time.

Vast differences in personal values will be influencing every member of your team and the way they experience your leadership, at every move, right now. Always in fact, but especially now in dramatic times, your team will be consciously and unconsciously deciding whether life is OK for them in your team, based on how you lead them.

What if everyone in the team has different values?

It’s a major mistake, in my view, to build a team of total values alignment. Although sameness feels comfortable and smooth, it limits everything and is a high-risk approach. Encouraging diversity of beliefs, values and behaviours is all part of building an innovative, creative, high performing team. A level of positive tension inside a trusting team is essential to high performance. The secret though, is to unearth the differences and explore them. Firstly, get them out there so everyone understands each other, and secondly, more importantly, be willing to challenge your own values.

It is often stated that our values are set and unchangeable. I can’t go with that.

As writer and comedian Tim Minchin said, “you should regularly take your beliefs outside and hit them with a bat. Constantly challenge your assumptions and biases”. Some of the values we live as universal truths do not serve us well. Like it or not, some of them are faulty and given to us by other people. Some of them are unhelpful now, even if they’ve been helpful in the past.

When you have identified your own super strong leadership beliefs (your leadership values), ask yourself where you got them from. How did you get them? Who and what informed them? What beliefs and behaviours do these values drive in you now? How well is each one working for you now?

For me, defending my public health values without respecting my husband’s family values has fairly glaring risks attached, and I was able to explore that with him. Same the other way too. Taking our shared beliefs outside and hitting them all with equal bats was very helpful, thanks to Minchin. Sometimes we realise our beliefs are informed by a parental stance that we’ve outgrown, some old circumstances or by a fallen hero. Then it’s time to really reflect on our own view and current reality.

Finding a way to honour the diverse values of all team members is the leadership challenge of this moment in history. Deciding how to emerge from lock down.. whether it’s OK to be marketing services and products during a pandemic.. whether it’s OK to blog about values when people are dying.. whether it’s acceptable to ignore your kids’ schooling for a term in order to keep earning a living.. whether it’s ethical to order clothes from Amazon and require a visit from a delivery driver for a pretty outfit, in order to support the livelihood of the dressmaker.. they’re all hugely personal, values-based reflections and it’s statistically highly unlikely that you and all your friends and team will agree on everything. Similarly, every decision you have to make as a leader now might be spiced with controversy and the likelihood of breaking someone’s rules. “What is the right thing to do now?” is absolutely the question of Spring 2020.

So what might help?

1. Talk about values. Explicitly. Work on yourself - understand your key values. If you then challenge your own values, assumptions and beliefs, and they survive that challenge – then tell your team all about them, and ask them to consider them in the way the team works. Ask your leaders, teams, peers, even clients, about what works for them. Start to include consideration for other team members’ heart-led decisions in your leadership. Everyone will understand that you can’t please all the people all the time. And everyone wants to feel heard and respected in your decisions.

2. Deal in facts whenever you have them. Have a look on You Tube at the short video of Angela Merkel explaining the difference between infection rates for Coronavirus. She says she has no idea yet how best to handle the emergence from lockdown but she explains that if the reinfection rate is 1.1 (So every person infected by COVID 19 infects one more), then the hospitals can cope. If the rate is 1.3, (and every person infects three more) the German hospitals will be overwhelmed and won’t cope. She explains that THAT is the intensity of the dilemma and the reason they’re being so cautious. And that is where the leadership safety comes from. We don’t need her to know everything, even though that would help. We simply appreciate understanding the challenge with honesty. Sometimes we are able to follow the facts over opinion, when the stakes are high. Respect the people to think for themselves.

3. Use a spectrum from curiosity to judgement – and stay curious. A very useful tool we use in coaching interactions in coaching, is the curiosity/judgement polar-opposite scale. As long as you hang around at the judgement end of the scale, other people’s values and opposing beliefs can feel weird and different, even unpalatable. If you can exist in a state of curiosity instead, you’ll be more likely to be able to ask questions to understand and to build bridges with others. How interesting that they see it that way, when in all other ways they seem like a smart human.. What can be going on for them? As their leader, what do you need to know about them or communicate with them, before you can proceed with your plan? If you were to accept their values were just as important as yours, what would you change about your approach?

4. Link people’s values with their strengths. If we assume that the people working with and for us have good intentions, as they usually do, even when their values are confusing us, it’s helpful to look behind the values at the strengths and behaviours. Remain curious, ask the questions, find the ways that the person exhibits great strengths behind their beliefs and see how that can help you move forward. Take my argument with my husband about the social distancing. It doesn’t take long to find huge strengths in a husband who takes great risks to look after people close to him. Obviously. I just had to release my own stuff in order to listen better and see things from his side. We were then able to talk in a more reasonable way.

5. Watch out for your personality preferences. When we’re in the grip of drama or heightened emotion, we run the risk of heightening our behaviours to a more extreme position. This can cause some confusion between values and behaviours. For example, if you’re someone who feels safer with a lot of structure and routine, during this work from home era, you may have started to impose some of that on team members who don’t share that preference. Be careful not to whip up tension where there wasn’t any before, by letting your stress-position-personality drive your behaviours. As before, return to the curiosity, the strengths and the respect for other adults to choose, and release the grip. This is not values-led leadership, it’s “in the grip” behaviour, and leads to negative rather than positive tension in the team.

6. If in doubt, stick to your whole-body truth. If something is troubling you in your gut – say your leader, team, organisation (or husband) has taken a stand that is troubling you, listen to your response in your body. Not everything is based in the brain cells inside the skull and often we disregard our intuition and ‘gut-feel’.

The sense that something ‘just isn’t right’ is reason enough to believe that something really isn’t right for you right now. After some consideration (and a some challenge of the beliefs with a bat) you may change your view, but first off, in these uncharted waters, trust your values to speak to you. This is what coaches are meaning by your ‘felt-self’. Allow yourself to feel it and hear it, beyond the facts.

Over time, people will decide to work for leaders and organisations that allow them to be heart-led and values-based, whether they do that consciously or not. It’s a useful exercise to project yourself forward in time and look back. What is the leadership style you want to say was yours, when you look back on 2020? Which values will inform your choices and behaviours, and reassure you that you did your best for your team during this chapter? We wish you well, safety and happiness. We also wish you success. If you’re looking to work more with your own values or those of your team or organisation, we’ll be here when you’re ready.

This article was written by Aly King-Smith. Aly is Director of Clearworks and writes for Clearworks and others as Aly KS & Co Ltd. Please get in contact via aly@clearworkscoaching.co.uk