miner seeing the light

Years ago, we helped an international mining company transform its safety culture from good to outstanding. Their 65% reduction in injuries over a three-year period vaulted them to become a benchmark company in their industry. A delegation of senior leaders and safety professionals from another mining company visited a few of their mine sites to understand how they achieved such dramatic safety improvement. One of the delegates asked the first person they saw on-site, “who’s in charge of safety?” “I am,” was the reply. “Oh, you’re the safety supervisor here?” “No,” he replied. “I am a miner on the night shift. We’re all in charge of safety.”

When we’re hired to start a culture development process with an organization, we’ll often assess the current culture through a series of small group and one-on-one interviews. We’ll ask questions like what are your organization’s core values? What behaviors are expected and rewarded? What behaviors are punished or corrected? What gets people hired, fired, or promoted here?

The combined answers are then clustered into key themes. In high-performing cultures, the themes are consistent and aligned with the organization’s stated values. But…that’s rare. Sometimes we’ll encounter discussions and disagreement about what the organization’s vision, mission, and values are. Many respondents must look them up. They’re clearly not top of mind. Sometimes there’s even disagreement about which are the most current ones.

Many people see a huge disconnect between the “aspired values” and the “lived values” that get people hired, fired, and promoted. For example, a bully boss who kisses up and kicks down is promoted because he or she delivers results. Results at any cost are the organization’s real values — despite lofty mission, vision, and values statements.

Values-based leadership and cultures have huge payoffs. Here are a few ways leaders can embed values in their own behaviors and build high-performance cultures:

  • Revisit and revise your values every few years to keep them alive and relevant. They can too easily become stale and ignored.
  • Use a series of “values fit screens” once new job candidates have made it through the technical qualifications and work experience screens. If your values say anything about empowerment, teamwork, participation, or involvement, get those people who will be the teammates of the new candidate actively involved in the hiring and selection process.
  • If you’re not using your values as key criteria in performance appraisal/management and especially promotions, they’re just hot air and gas.
  • What gets measured gets managed. If you’re not measuring and providing feedback to everyone on your core values, they’re dead.
  • Look at key organization systems, processes, and structure. Whom do they serve? Do they help or hinder people in living your values?
  • Ask a random group of customers, external partners, and internal people to jot down the three things that your organization or team seems to care most about.
  • Have team members give regular, anonymous ratings on how well the leaders are living the values.
  • Ask people what gets somebody fired or promoted.
  • Look at a recent (or current) crisis. What values were really tested? Did leaders use those values to guide decisions and actions?
  • What’s on your team meeting agendas? How is planning, directing, and controlling balanced with caring for the cultural context and values?
  • What are people rewarded and recognized for?
  • Deeply imbed values in all training and organization improvement efforts.
  • If you’re trying to bring about a values shift, look for dramatic, visible ways to demonstrate the new values.
  • Begin meetings (especially strategic, budgeting, or planning sessions) with participants reflecting on how he or she has lived the values personally. Or you might give recognition to team members for a strong example of signaling the values. End the meeting with a team assessment of whether your values were alive and actively used in the meeting.
  • Weave references to your values in presentations, emails, and discussions.
  • Ensure your leadership team is getting unfiltered, regular feedback on how well their team dynamics and personal behaviors model your stated values and desired culture.

Who’s in charge of safety or service or quality or whatever you’re stated vision, mission, or values are? Do frontline servers and team members embody and own your values? If a delegation visited your organization to see how alive your values are, what would they find? Would they hear and see consistent alignment and ownership at every level?