This piece builds on Part I and is intended to provide leaders with insight into the dilemma and impacts of value-incongruence on employees, customers, clients and the company overall. More importantly this discussion offers a 4-step process for practically operationalizing values, so that priority principles can be identified, harnessed and brought to life, to enhance the meaning employees experience as they carry out their work.

A Real Dilemma with Values and Leadership – What We Want Versus What We Got

Very few people and organizations would argue about the integral and essential role values play as a potent motivation source for employee commitment, engagement, and optimal performance.

In addition to the significance of values, all organizations would state that their people are important. As a matter of fact 100% of the more than 6000 supervisors and managers I have interviewed, all want the best for their team members; to be satisfied, committed, motivated and fully engaged as they carry out their work.

While there are exceptions, a serious gap exists between what management deem important and what employees experience…and that GAP is MASSIVE.

Unfortunately, many employees experience a disconnect from important personal and professional values as they carry out their work. Value-misalignment and value-incongruence as discussed in Part I, are major contributors to the largely dissatisfied and disengaged existence many people in corporate and human service environments experience.

There is ample research estimating that approximately 70% of employees are dissatisfied and/or disengaged at work. In addition to this, many employees are less than satisfied with their direct supervisor/manager. Over the last several years I have interviewed many employees regarding their “Best Leadership” experience to find that close to 40% of the participants report not having a positive leadership experience ever, in their whole career!

Like many leaders, I find these phenomena fascinating and frustrating. 100% of leaders want the best for their people, yet a large percentage of their employees are dissatisfied, disillusioned and/or disengaged in their jobs!

The Impacts – Beyond the Top and Bottom Lines

It is estimated by various sources that dissatisfied and disengaged employees cost more than 500 billion dollars per year in lost productivity and revenue; and that is just the corporate figures. It is hard to find the numbers for the human service industries, but my guess is that they are sizeable. While productivity and efficiencies are important, the “bottom-line” in the helping fields is vulnerable people.

The top and bottom-lines are essential in all industries, but the cost of employee dissatisfaction and disengagement extend well beyond the monetary. The negative social, emotional, mental and physical implications of persistent dissatisfaction and disengagement on the well being of employees are pervasive.

The multifarious impacts on the overall well being of employees translates into lower productivity and poor practice decisions that negatively impact customers, clients and the organization overall. However, the negative impacts don’t stop there; the social, emotional, mental and physical stress can pervade all aspect of employee life and negatively impact professional and personal relationships, families and communities overall.

A Partial Solution – Values in Action

While the dilemma presented above is beyond frustrating and stressful for all organizations and leaders, there is hope. As a matter of fact, the disconnection and incongruence employees’ experience is not totally the company and/or their leader’s fault.

As a former Associate Professor and Professional Learning and Development Specialist I will take partial responsibility. I do apologize for my contribution to a system of learning that until recently paid lip service to the importance of values, while doing little to demonstrate how to put those values into action; in all aspects of work, from the front-line, up and through all levels of management and leadership.

Unfortunately, many leaders have not been taught and/or supported in their learning, to put values into action; in both employee work functions and/or within the context of their own leadership. What does empowerment look like and sound like in a client meeting? What does excellence look like when interacting with a hostile and aggressive customer?

I have yet to find a course that teaches leaders how to do integrity in team meetings or, to operationalize empathy and/or respect in a one-on-one performance appraisal or discipline hearing. As with many of the “soft skills” that are taken for granted (until recently) putting values into practice has been given more lip service than actual priority for leadership development.

We have all heard the term “loose lips sink ships”. Well, when people are told that certain values are important and then perceive something different and/or the opposite in practice, the ship that may eventually sink is the department and/or the company that they work for.

Bringing Values to Life – 4 Steps for Operationalizing Values in Practice

Given that leaders are responsible for the general well-being of their team members, it is important for them to know that they can enhance capacity to build on and leverage values to optimize engagement, performance and the attainment of preferred employee and organizational outcomes. It is also critical for leaders to know that when their behaviour is perceived by employees as out of step or incongruent with personal, professional or company values, leadership integrity and overall organizational trust with team members WILL be compromised.

The following 4 steps have been helpful for many leaders and teams who have made efforts towards decreasing and even eliminating unintentional value-misalignment and employee experiences of value-incongruence. While this process can be utilized for all work functions and/or work environments, I will present the steps in the context of Quality and Effective Leadership.

Step 1. Identify Important Value(s)

Values are often found in the organization’s vision and guiding priorities. It is important for these to be visible and accessible to all employees. If they are not named, they cannot be claimed. Common values, among others, that guide many companies’ culture and conduct are Trust, Integrity, Respect, Collaboration, Transparency, Accountability, Excellence, etc.

When employees cannot name and/or identify with important values that are intended to guide their behaviour as they carry out the work, the result is an inevitable disconnection and value-less experience. This will eventually lead to value confusion and eventual value-incongruence.

The same is true in the context of leadership. A leadership vision and values, which are often contained in a philosophy of leadership and consistent with the company’s Vision and Mission, should be visible and accessible to all leaders and the employees who are expected to follow them.

When asked about guiding principles, employees and their leaders should not have to search for the values on the wall, in a strategic document or on the company’s website to be able to name the most important guiding priorities. If and when people cannot identify the guiding principles, the following three steps will be impossible.

Step 2. Define the Identified Value(s)

Once important values are identified and easily accessible to all employees, it is important for them to be defined. A clear, or clearest possible, definition is important so that vague and ambiguous values can become more concrete. A definition gives people something tangible to stand on and operate from; which is exceptionally important for step 3.

Values can be hard to define.

It is important that definitions be as short and precise as possible. Three of the most important values identified among others as key contributors to quality and effective leadership are Trust, Respect and Integrity. Trust while an important value is actually a by-product of all other important values in operation.

The following are simple value definitions that I like to use when working with teams and leaders in the process of bringing important values to life.

  • Trust – A sense of security that is the result of an action and/or actions that are favourable or, at least not detrimental to another person.
  • Respect – The consideration of another person’s wellbeing (social, emotional, mental, physical, cultural, religious, sexual-orientation, etc.).
  • Integrity – To behave in a manner that is consistent with guiding values and priorities and, to do what one says one will do.

Step 3. Develop a Shared Understanding of What the Value(s) Mean

The value definitions above offer an anchor and/or a platform to ground and guide the development of a shared understanding of what those values may mean to individuals, teams and leadership. For instance, the definition of Trust, Respect and Integrity make it much clearer to distinguish certain behaviours and/or actions that are more in or, more out of alignment with the particular definition.

A shared understanding of what the values mean is critical for many reasons. The number one reason is to minimize the personal stress and conflict that ensue when people operate from a different understanding of a particular value.

Take the value of Respect for instance. There are many employees and leaders in today’s workforce, that maintain and operate from the understanding of Respect as meaning fear, compliance, and/or loyalty. I’m not sure that an organization’s leadership would be impressed with employees or fellow leaders that seek to influence customers, clients and/or fellow employees with scare tactics and/or methods of autocratic power and control; unless of course, the values on the wall clearly read, “Fear”, “Loyalty”, “Compliance”.

Once individuals, teams and leadership have a shared understanding of what important and guiding values mean, they are better able to identify and choose tangible behaviours that foster and or promote those values in practice.

Step 4. Identify Specific and Observable Behaviours; What the Value(s) Look Like in Operation 

The great thing about operating from values is that there are hundreds of ways to build Trust and do Respect and/or Integrity. The difficulty, which gets much easier with practice, is to identify as many behaviours as possible that represent the particular value in operation. This way, employees and leaders can be purposeful in the perpetual operatioinalization of the values as they carry out their work.

Here are some examples of what Respect and Integrity can look like, by a leader, in a one-on-one performance review:

  • Schedule a time that suits the person and you
  • Ensure protected and uninterrupted time
  • Acknowledge and appreciate the effort of the person to be at the meeting
  • Honour agreed upon and preferred structure/process for meeting
  • Begin with a quick personal check-in prior to business
  • Ask the person what they are hoping for in the meeting
  • Start the meeting with what they are doing well, their strengths
  • Ensure relevant, reasonable and realistic expectations that are flexible
  • Ask the person what they might need for support
  • Ask the person how you might be helpful during and after the meeting
  • Do not postpone and/or cancel the review
  • Be sure to have read last review prior to meeting
  • Be prepared for review – with feedback, areas of strength and development
  • Be sure to start and finish on time
  • Follow the agreed upon structure and process for the meeting
  • Review progress and strengths since last review
  • Review list of goals and objectives from previous review
  • Ask person for feedback on your supportiveness as a leader
  • Report on shortcomings and/or tasks that you have not completed
  • Provide honest, direct and accurate feedback on performance
  • Be open to feedback yourself
  • Allow person to choose one or two development areas
  • Ask person for input on how you may support current plan

The operationalization of values is key for quality and effective leadership and integral to the enhancement of employee satisfaction, commitment, engagement and optimal performance. Most importantly, bringing values to life by putting them into practice is critical for minimizing and even eliminating employee experiences of value-misalignment and the organizational killer, known as value-incongruence.

Finally, operationalization of important values is critical so that employees and leaders alike can hold themselves and each other accountable. Accountability is impossible without the identification and operatioinalization of guiding values. This will be discussed further in an upcoming article entitled, “Accountability: It Shouldn’t Hurt!”


Stephen de Groot is the is an international speaker, author and the principle developer and facilitator of Leadership Training for some of Canada’s top companies. He has helped dozens of organizations and hundreds of leaders minimize the potential for and consequences of value confusion, unintentional value-misalignment and value-incongruence. 

If you are going to be in Winnipeg Manitoba on June 12th, Stephen de Groot would love to see you for breakfast and something very special. For more information and to register, visit the Inspiring Breakfast Series: “Maximizing Motivation” event page