August 1, 2012

Rules Divorced from Values Have No Value

Some people think of values like the North Stars: they are directional guideposts to help steer you in the right direction.

Others think of values like anchors: they hold you in place so you don't stray too far in your decision-making.

It's not unusual for organizations of all kinds—educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofits, or companies—to have a statement of core values, the ones that are meant to guide and shape behavior and decisions.  Most organizations also have employee rules or member codes of conduct.  When behavior doesn't correspond to the rules, more rules get made.  And that's a problem. 

Do you always drive the speed limit?  Probably not.  But when a squad car sits on the side of the road, no doubt you drop the pace of your travel to conform to the law ... or rule.  So you're not really committed to the value of safety, but you will comply with the rule when punishment is likely.

I worked in an organization once where a rule on the books was that every phone call had to be answered in three rings.  Theoretically, you could grab the phone on the third ring and scream "Whhhaaaaat?" into it and be in full compliance with the policy.  While I don't think that was the intention behind the rule, we also never discussed why answering the phone on the third ring was important or how it related to our value of outstanding customer service.

Unless you want to be the cop in the car, you need to create an environment in which people have genuine commitment to the core values of your organization instead of offering mere compliance with its rules.  Unless you want to make a rule for every single action employees must take, you need to spend more time sharing stories about values in action and why they matter.

Compliance appears only when the threat of punishment is great. Commitment stays present because people understand "it's the way we do things around here",  and they genuinely value doing things that way.  We want commitment to the value, not just compliance to a rule.

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