Detect mysterious underlying values and beliefs within your organisation

values and beliefs

You can see how sometimes underlying values and beliefs supersede formal strategies and good intentions. They are very powerful forces indeed! To make matters worse, such beliefs are invisible and hard to detect, writes Dave Hanna.  

Sometimes what goes on in organisations doesn’t make any sense. Consider these actual scenarios:

  • A group commissioned to help its company grow profitability in a time of market recession comes up with a credible plan to do just that. The executive team enthusiastically endorses the plan. However, the CEO refuses to authorise it because, “devising such a plan is my job, not the job of some committee.”
  • A start-up organisation sets out to create some innovative structures to enable high performance. Yet, as the actual structuring is taking place, boxes, dotted lines, and straight lines are almost identical to a typical bureaucracy. When confronted with this reality, the CEO admits the newly-created structures fit his belief that each of his direct reports should have the same sized organisation.
  • The Seacoast Company had very clear standards of business ethics in its policy manual. Anyone who observed unethical behaviour was to report it immediately. Independent auditors discovered the company had billed a large client 40 million dollars for work that was not ever done. Seacoast ultimately paid 60 million dollars in penalties. Its associates confided that anyone who actually reported unethical behaviour would likely be demoted into a dead-end job or be terminated.

Do you see an underlying pattern in these mysterious situations? What could explain such cultures?

Dr. Edgar Schein, an early pioneer in understanding what shapes and maintains organisational cultures, explains that culture emerges over time due to three main forces:

  1. Artifacts: visible indicators such as behaviours and physical settings.
  2. Values: formal values openly expressed by employees and codified in corporate documents such as a strategy, a mission statement, or a formal code of conduct.
  3. Basic Assumptions: informal beliefs that people use to make day-to-day decisions. My label for this category is “Underlying Values and Beliefs” (UVBs).

Which of these three forces explains the three mysteries? Revisit these clues:

  • “Devising such a plan is my job, not the job of some committee.”
  • “Each of my direct reports should have the same sized organisation.
  • “Report unethical behaviour and you’ll get dead-ended.”

You can see how sometimes underlying values and beliefs supersede formal strategies and good intentions. They are very powerful forces indeed! To make matters worse, such beliefs are invisible and hard to detect. Dr. Schein once told me that these underlying values and beliefs are the hardest elements for people inside a culture to detect.

How to solve such mysteries
Underlying values and beliefs are certainly hard – but not impossible – to identify. Here is a process that has helped many people all over the world solve the mystery of what is really driving their organisation:

1. Identify your organisation’s underlying values and beliefs by tracing the cause-and-effect path they drive.

  • Start by identifying behaviours that don’t make any sense (i.e., rejecting a proposal that builds profitability in tough times)
  • Move backwards in the cause-and-effect path to find out why people are behaving as they do. Ask questions such as:

Do people have/not have the necessary skills to do differently or better?
Do structures enable the right people to work together as needed?
Are decisions made by those with the right knowledge and experience?
Do some processes or systems cause people to behave the way they do?
Are the right behaviours rewarded or discouraged? Are the wrong behaviours rewarded or discouraged?

  • Then ask yourself, “What values or beliefs logically explain this cause-and-effect path?”

2. Compare UVBs with stated values or strategy.

  • If there is no disparity here, this usually means you are progressing with the values and/or strategy.
  • If UVBs are not aligned with values/strategy, then you will now understand how the UVBs have taken over deceptively as the values/strategy.

3. Where do these UV&Bs lead us?

  • If they are leading downward, then it is time to eliminate them.
  • Remember: people will discard their underlying values and beliefs once they understand they are self-defeating.

4. Decide what you really want! Then change the cause-and-effect path elements as necessary.

A Living, Breathing Example
A manufacturing plant had a recordable injury rate that was the 11th worst of the 13 companies it compared itself against. The plant manager wanted this to change and commissioned a large team to study the issue and recommend how to improve.

The plant manager gave this team a target: “an injury-free workplace.” The team diagnosed all elements of the cause-and-effect path that explained their poor results. They discovered:

  • The authority and necessary skills to manage safety performance were invested in a staff function far away from the production area where most accidents occurred.
  • Associates focused on production priorities, not on their work habits.
  • The process for identifying safety hazards and eliminating them was a bureaucratic nightmare and had failed to eliminate a single hazard!
  • All associates, even the team members themselves, believed, “This is a production plant and people are just going to get hurt once in a while.”

But the plant manager’s ultimatum for an “injury-free workplace” remained unchanged. The team then turned its attention to realigning the causes and effects:

  • Safety training was renewed for all associates.
  • Each team on each shift had a safety representative certified by the central safety function.
  • The hazard elimination process was transformed from 28 steps with 14 departmental handoffs to 15 steps with no handoffs. There were no handoffs because experts either were transferred into production or production associates were certified to represent the respective staff functions.
  • Everyone’s responsibility in this new scenario was to ensure no one got injured.

Once these changes were solidified, the production area had zero recordable injuries in the next 12 months!

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