By Christiane Vogell

With the need for business to become more agile corporate values have recently received a lot more attention in order to create a working environment which fosters innovation, creativity and involvement.

The agile framework Scrum introduced in 2016 five values as essential for the framework to be effective. These values are: commitment, focus, courage, openness and respect. According to the Scrum Guide the values shall be lived and embodied by all Scrum team members. But it has not been working like expected. Simply publishing the values and printing them out does not make them lived values. Partly reflecting that frustration an agile coach told me once: “I don’t care if the employees share the values, I just want them to be enacted!” Well, he should care because it makes a huge difference whether we share corporate values or not.

Norms are restrictive, values are attractive

When we are asked to follow certain behaviours or rules we are referring to norms. The academic definition is: “Norms are values at group level”. In other words, norms define a common ground for what a group considers worth striving for and set a framework for interaction, what behaviours we think acceptable and expect from other persons within that group.

However, although norms are defined as values at group level we might not consider them attractive at a personal level. Why is this?  A value by itself is something positive, it sets direction and guides our behaviour intrinsically towards results we consider worth striving for. That applies equally to group values as well as to personal values. But what happens if we don’t share the group values on a personal level? Then the group values, respectively the norms, miss the enabling and motivating quality of values. If the norm is not perceived as personal value we don’t have an inner desire to make the values real and meaningful. This is a very typical thing with regard to norms: we might not be necessarily willing to follow them, perceive them as restricting and might adjust our behaviour only if being controlled or feeling social pressure. Norms then define imposed behaviour and our willingness to follow them is depending on whether the norm conflicts or is compatible with our personal set of values and how important these values are to us. By contrast, if a norm is considered a desirable and important goal the norm is no longer perceived as norm, but becomes a personal value. That’s why a manager should care whether employees share the values.

It is neither realistic nor desirable that all group members have a fully aligned set of values. The process how norms are set, however, can make a difference how norms are perceived on a personal level. A typical behaviour for top management is to design the corporate values and just inform the employees about what they expect. In that case the employees don’t have any ownership of the group values. In addition, management often does not care enough about a common understanding, to become explicit about norms, to lay open and discuss the assumptions why certain behaviours are expected to help the group to serve its purpose. If management were concerned about a common understanding employees’ attitude towards the corporate norms might change and less control would be required. If employees are involved in the process of setting norms, if norms grow out of a discussion, if they are able to contribute their point of view and being heard the level of acceptance and willingness to follow the norms will increase further. Discussions challenge the employees to actively reflect not only on the group values but as well on their own values. And potential conflicts might be even solved by a change in values on a personal level. Or you might learn early who will no longer fit the new set of group values.

In many cases when corporations want to become agile they follow the traditional route. It is the management that decides and informs: we are agile now. And an agile framework like Scrum is introduced, thereby setting new norms. So this start is already not favourable to ensure that the employees are following willingly the new norms, the Scrum values being part of it.  A fact which is, if not ignored, at least not of prime concern when the decision is made. The trouble with the Scrum values or the alike is: The enactment of such values cannot be controlled like other norms. It is impossible to enforce an employee to feel committed, to have courage or to speak up openly. By social pressure you might achieve some type of mimicry, e.g. show some kind of respect, but never a heartfelt behaviour, i.e. feel respect. Whether we are prepared and are able to live these values depends essentially on how well connected we feel to the group and its members.

Do we feel a sense of belonging?

Belonging is a basic need. Considering how much time we spend at our workplace it would be good for our well-being if we felt connected to the company we work for. And there are companies and employees for which this still holds true. But in many companies there has been a tremendous change since the 1990s: the shareholder value principle appeared on the scene. As the leading business principle it led to a shift in norms in the corporate world. Achievement and accumulating wealth became the prime focus for corporate behaviour, controlling, planning and budgeting the main tools. Social values, the caring and concern for others lost relevance. A development pinpointed by the joke: ”There is something we like about our customers, it is their money”. The impact on employees and workforce has been tremendous with a strong focus on productivity and cost efficiency. The person behind it all lost relevance from a corporate perspective.

This shift in corporate values has had its impact on the level of social connectedness experienced by employees. Surveys reveal a high level of disengaged employees. And that has, in turn, had adverse effects on the willingness to follow norms and applying values.

If we experience a level of social connectedness with a group the self grows less important. There is real concern for others within that group and the group’s purpose. And, yes, in this sense norms are restrictive as they demand from us to refrain from following our own values for the sake of the group’s welfare. If we do not care about the group then we are less willing to follow the group norms. As a result the necessity for constant control increases.

But even if values are shared it depends on social connectedness whether they are applied or not. Neuroscientific research has shown that individuals so not apply values consistently. When making social decisions that affect others, much depends on how similar or different the observed person is perceived to be, compared with oneself, if they have previously shown fairness and friendship, or are part of the same social group.

As long as management felt in full control the disengagement had been noticed but seemingly not considered as too critical as little had been done about it. But this does not longer hold true for an agile environment. Commitment and collaboration is required instead of top-down set objectives and results. And this by itself requires social connectedness and shared values.

Shared Values as Lighthouse

Disruptive and turbulent is the description of the business environment for many corporations. Plans and budgets do provide only little orientation in such an environment. But orientation is urgently needed. Shared values and a sense of connectedness can serve that purpose and be the stabilizing factor in turbulent times. But to create a sense of social connectedness social values must be re-enacted, there is the need to rebalance social and achievement values within corporations.

Agile frameworks like Scrum help by introducing certain routines to further social connectedness. But that is only a start. Key to a new balance of values is a full hearted endorsement by management which creates trust. And this implies the new balance of values has to be reflected by the management’s own personal value structure and to show consistently in their own behaviour. It needs readiness to invest time and effort into cultivating social values. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes when it comes to changing the deeply embedded values of an organization. It requires long-term commitment to make the shift from an achievement driven outlook on life to a way of being and working which is as well interconnected and purpose driven. To create a corporate organization to which the employees say: “yes, I want to follow”.

About the author

Christiane Vogell is an internationally experienced management consultant assisting  leadership to meet the challenges of an increasing agile and complex world.  In her work she integrates her consulting competencies with a strong focus on the people side.

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