Avoid the slippery slope that can warp your culture
Values aren’t on or off. It’s more of a slippery slope kind of thing. And while people expend untold efforts labelling what a value is, scant attention gets paid to what it isn’t and even less to when it goes too far.
My recent articles have explored values, culture and brand. And today, I’m swinging back to values because those gaps in attention compromise more than understanding.
First, here’s how values, culture and brand relate to each other.
Values are how I do things.
Culture is those things repeated.
Brand stores the value those things create so I can do more work.
Learn more about brand as a store of value. Click here
Behaviours are where values show up, rippling across hundreds of daily actions and decisions. Which means an incomplete understanding of my values can easily careen out of control.
Generally speaking, no one comes to work and deliberately undermines the values. Instead, they’re eroded by a slow drip of mixed messages and fuzzy boundaries leading to misaligned behaviours. It’s not something that happens overnight.
There’s ample research into how good people do bad things. One team from the University of North Carolina, University of Washington and University of Arizona found:
“… that with time, people justify incrementally bigger indiscretions; however, they will not take a leap from a small deception to significant unethical behaviour. The slippery slope is thus the heart of the danger; remove this slope (i.e. do not allow the small indiscretions to become incrementally bigger) and people will stop engaging in unethical or immoral actions.”
Alongside this ethical and moral slippery slope are values that similarly slip out of balance one person and one behaviour at a time, warping the culture.
The Values Curve below demonstrates the idea. In balance, values sit at the top of the curve with ‘how I do things’ lined up to what it means. So to avoid careening towards deficit or excess, I’ve got to watch out for slippery slope actions before they take hold.
© Michel Hogan
There’s plenty of tension at play that can pull me either way. It might be outside factors like a pandemic, strong personalities in my team, or an operating crisis.
Managing that tension keeps values active. Still, the slippery slide is always one person’s behaviour away, which if unchallenged can quickly gain momentum in all the wrong places.
Learn more about productive tension. Click here
For example, when company X’s value innovate was balanced, it sparked new ideas and ushered in progress. Early efforts were open and cooperative until a few overly critical comments became a trend, and soon people were afraid to try new things.
Company Y held friendliness as a value. And even this seemingly benign principle tumbled into excess. In this case, the ball got rolling when people avoided hard conversations because others might get upset.
Putting my values to work and feeding the culture I want requires I know what each side of imbalance looks like. So every exercise to discover values also has to explore what sits out at the edges where it can flip.
No one lands in deficit or excess overnight. Just like small deceptions incrementally turn into wholesale embezzlement. To escape the slippery slope requires an enriched understanding of what the value is, isn’t and when it goes too far
See you next time.