What values guide my actions and behaviors at work?

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This is the second article in a 4-article series that explores each of the Four Questions leaders must ask to reveal the total job role to employees, connect daily work activities to organizational purpose, and inspire the collective pursuit of a common aspirational goal. The act of contemplating and responding to each of the Four Questions is designed to bring job purpose into the light, first for yourself as a leader, and then to help you enlighten your employees. This is how you give them something tangible to see and connect to—and customers something to sense and experience.

Answering these questions for yourself will connect you to your purpose at work and prepares you to confidently address the subject with others. First, the questions help reacquaint you with your organization’s existing mission, vision, or purpose statement(s) as well as its corporate ideals, core values, principles, pillars, or guideposts. You must be fluent in these corporate ideals if you expect to have any credibility connecting employees’ work activities to the purpose of the job role.

Second, they help you develop your own understanding of how core organizational values can shape behavior, decision-making, and the development of team goals and aspirations.

Third, they help you get your own house in order. You must be able to articulate your own job purpose and model the values, actions, and behaviors that support it before you ask the same of your employees. That is why I first recommend answering these questions for yourself before exploring what the answers might be for any of your employees. It is true that there will be overlap in the responses as they apply to your role and the roles of those whom you supervise, manage, or lead, and with whom you work as peers. And, in some cases, the responses will be identical.

If you work for a large company, chances are you already have an authentic, well-worded mission, vision, or purpose statement, and an articulated set of core values. There are advantages and disadvantages to this. It’s useful to have organizational purpose and values crystalized. Assuming these corporate ideals are credible and relevant, much of the work in answering the questions will have been done for you. Your job, then, is to adapt these corporate-level ideals to your local workplace and make them applicable to your employees’ job roles and work groups. In some cases, the organizational purpose and your (or your employees’) job-specific purpose may even be one and the same.

The disadvantage, however, to having these polished statements and values available as turnkey corporate ideals is that you can fill in those answers without putting a lot of original thought into them. When you must come up with your own answers—for yourself and for your employees—you reinforce the connections between job purpose, core values, purposeful actions and behaviors, and the team’s aspirational goal.

If your company does not have a defined purpose statement and a set of core values teed up, answering the Four Questions will be more time-intensive, but the process may be more rewarding. You will likely need to do more discovery. This may take the form of questioning the founder or long-term employees to learn the company’s history, uncover its origin story, and begin to knit a rich tapestry of its past. You will need to learn about the company’s products, services, triumphs, setbacks, and the decisions that lead to them. You will be challenged to do the contemplative thinking required to remove layers of organizational veneer to access what your company stands for beneath the surface. Each of these valuable pieces of information will help lead you to the most meaningful answers to the Four Questions.

The second question is this: What values guide my actions and behaviors at work?

A company’s core values are the fundamental beliefs, ideals, or practices that inform company decisions and guide behavior. Too often, however, these foundational values appear as an aspirational list on a company’s About webpage or logoed coffee mug but have little to do with day-to-day decision-making. Therefore, it’s important to think deeply about how these core values should trickle down to a division, work group, or job role. While there will likely be significant if not complete overlap with the organization’s overarching values, reflecting on them provides you with the opportunity to identify which are the most important to your team or to redefine certain values in a way that resonates with the team’s specific function or purpose.

And once you articulate a set of job-specific values for your employees, these values can serve as a touchstone for behavior and decision-making. As Roy Disney of The Walt Disney Company said, “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

Take as an example pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, maker of the first-to-market COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was asked whether the rapid development of a vaccine in 2020 could be characterized as a miracle. He responded, “I want to make something very, very clear. [It] was not luck. [It] was very deliberate. It was the result of hundreds of decisions that had to be made along the way…We were successful, not lucky.”

Now, let’s drill down further to see how Pfizer’s values are reflected in a specific working group. The company’s organizational purpose is to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives. Pfizer’s organizational purpose may also serve as the purpose of the job role across functions. Below is the ambitious set of values Pfizer has articulated to support this purpose:

  • Breakthroughs start by challenging convention, especially in the face of uncertainty or adversity. This happens when we think big, speak up, and are decisive.
  • We can change patients’ lives only when we perform at our best together. This happens when we focus on what matters, agree who does what, and measure our outcomes.
  • We believe that every person deserves to be seen, heard, and cared for. This happens when we are inclusive, act with integrity, and reduce health care disparities.
  • We give ourselves to our work, but it also gives to us. We find joy when we take pride, recognize one another, and have fun.

The way that Pfizer presents its core values is instructive. Rather than simply compiling a set of imitative values that did not, by themselves, differentiate Pfizer from other pharmaceutical companies, it added context by expanding each word into a statement. And it further deciphered each one by specifying the desired behaviors that will reflect the value in action.

As the leadership author Patrick Lencioni observed. “55 percent of all Fortune 100 companies claim integrity is a core value, 49 percent espouse customer satisfaction, and 40 percent tout teamwork. While there are inarguably good qualities, such terms hardly provide a distinct blueprint for employee behavior. Cookie-cutter values don’t set a company apart from competitors; they make it fade into the crowd.”

Pfizer recognized that its chosen values were somewhat abstract as is and that there was an opportunity to add context with an explanatory statement and describe what those values in action would look like.

Pfizer employees’ job functions vary depending on job role, so their purpose and values are reflected in different ways. For example, those charges with pricing the COVID-19 vaccine (a job function), priced it at the cost of distributing it to low-income countries. This decision not only supports its purpose—to deliver breakthroughs that change patients’ lives—but also reflects its value of equity by reducing health care disparities and its value of courage by challenging conventional pricing strategies knowing that this action may be scrutinized by shareholders.

So, here’s the relationship between purpose and values: Pfizer would not have been able to fulfill its purpose of delivering breakthroughs and changing patients’ lives if the company had priced the vaccine at a price that lower-income countries could not afford. To make good on its purpose, Pfizer needed a purpose- and values-driven pricing model.

Core values that inform employees’ actions and behaviors and guide decision-making are perceived as credible by employees and customers alike. They are seen as relevant to employees’ real world of work as opposed to being a set of performative ideals that are posted on the corporate website but are removed from one’s day-to-day work experience. By articulating core values, adding context by expanding each value into a statement, and specifying the desired behaviors that will reflect the value in action, you are making connections between an employee’s job functions (duties and tasks), the purpose of their job role, and the organization’s core values. Doing so activates job purpose, makes work compelling and meaningful, and drives people to do their best work.

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