Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Dr. Tom Barth, Professor of Public Administration at UNCW. He has been conducting research on values-based decision making in local government and nonprofit organizations and shared some of his preliminary data and conclusions at a “lunch and learn” sponsored by UNCW’s Quality Enhancement for Nonprofit Organizations (QENO). His presentation set me to thinking about the importance and elusiveness of organizational values. To the extent that any of what follows is insightful, the credit belongs to Dr. Barth. To the extent that it is not, the blame is on me.
Every organization has a set of values that guides its operations and decision-making. Sometimes these values are explicit and well-documented, and sometimes they are unwritten or unspoken. They are the core principles that guide the daily activities and long-term direction of the organization. An organization which is aware of and adheres to its values is consistent, coherent and able to make decisions quickly and successfully. One that doesn’t know or adhere to its own values is likely to become unfocused, have difficulties with decision-making and responding to change, and perform below its potential. In an extreme case, “values ignorance” can lead to the steady disintegration of an organization.
You may be thinking, “That sounds pretty serious. And I’m not sure I even know what our values are!” Don’t worry. It is serious, but most organizations cruise along quite smoothly with everyone adhering to a set of organizational values, even if they don’t know they have them. If you work in a financial institution, for example, your organizational values almost certainly include: integrity, accountability, confidentiality and accuracy. You don’t need to see them written down to know them; it’s just the way you do business. The danger comes in with the more subtle values. Which does your organization value more, consensus or individual initiative? If you want to lead an effort for change in your department, knowing the priority of these competing values could be essential to success.
So, how do you identify your organizational values? A good place to start is by checking out foundational documents like a mission statement, bylaws, business plan, statement of purpose, or articles of incorporation. These often contain clear values statements. Here at Habitat, dignity, hope, and self-help are among our core values, and they are reflected in one way or another in all of our key documents.
One of the clearest values statements ever written is the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to our ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The values crammed into that single sentence include: unity, justice, peaceful coexistence, security, shared prosperity, liberty and legacy. Those values are reflected and repeated throughout the Constitution and are meant to guide our nation’s structure, activities and decision-making. People at all levels of government – from the President of the United States to the part-time interim deputy assistant to the town clerk – should be checking their decisions and actions for consistency with those values.
The odds are that you don’t have such a nifty one-sentence listing of values for your organization. You may need to examine multiple documents or survey staff and stakeholders to identify them. A few good places to look: job descriptions, employee review forms, standard agreements and contracts, and annual reports. Surveying others in the organization can be done over lunch, at the water cooler, or as part of regular meetings or performance reviews. This doesn’t have to be a special initiative sanctioned and supported by your organization’s leaders, though that’s a great idea. It can also be a personal project, undertaken on your own time to help you better understand what makes your organization tick.
Once you have identified the core values for your organization, you need to make them part of your daily decision-making and long-term planning processes. You may also need to measure them against your personal values. If there are conflicts, you’ll have to figure out how to reconcile them. In most cases, that means adjusting your individual values to align with those of the organization – or examining other career options. Even hidden and unacknowledged values can become deeply imbedded and resistant to change. One of my personal values is to “avoid banging my head against the wall.” I recommend it highly.
Values are the secret code to understanding the most perplexing question you’ll face in your organization: “Why?” It is easy to identify what you do, where you do it, how you do it, and when you do it. But why you do it holds the whole thing together. And the answer to “Why?” can be found in your organization’s core values.
Steve Spain is the Executive Director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. Over the last 25 years, CFHFH has provided first-time homeownership opportunities to more than 150 families and currently builds a dozen new houses a year. To explore volunteer or sponsorship opportunities or to learn more about Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s programs, visit www.capefearhabitat.org. Contact Mr. Spain at [email protected]. Like CFHFH on Facebook: www.facebook.com/capefearhabitat.
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