By Dr. Thomas Underwood: Independent Educator and Consultant
It is common for organizations to have a list of core values, statements of principles that have intrinsic worth.
Core values serve as a foundation to an organization’s vision, an influencer of culture, and as a framework for behavior. Since it has intrinsic worth, a core value is “an end in itself” (Kidder, 2009) and should not change over time or factors. Honesty, for example, is generally considered a value of intrinsic worth.
The challenge is whether the core values listed on an organization’s webpage or on a poster in the break room have intrinsic worth or do they “too often stand for nothing but a desire to be au courant or, worse still, politically incorrect” (Lencioni, 2002). Core values without leadership commitment are not only counterproductive but do not differentiate the organization from its competitors. Usefulness stems from how they are communicated, integrated into policy and procedure, and modeled by leadership.
LEADERSHIP AND ORGANIZATIONAL CORE VALUES: Authenticity vs. Hypocrisy
Leaders can demonstrate authenticity in their commitment to core values through effective communication, integration and daily behaviors. On the other hand, hypocrisy of leadership happens if the core values are contradicted by leadership actions. As J. Evans notes, “Core values do not add value if the behavior of those who typically have the most power in organizations do not demonstrate them at work.”
The chart to the right shows leadership authenticity and hypocrisy characteristics as applied to core values that are unique but also some that are common—as garnered from a quick internet search of some organizations in the region: a medical center, a manufacturer, a non-profit and a university.
Aside from the impact on the individual employee, why does this matter? Because leadership does not occur in a vacuum. Every leadership action, good and bad, is observed and processed by others.
If a leader’s behavior is not authentic, then the core values do not have intrinsic worth and are simply words. The negative perceptions that emanate from employee observations of leadership hypocrisy are eventually shared with others and cascade through the organization. Since formal leaders serve as the face of an organization, the organization is often the personification of the formal leader. If the leader’s judgements are deemed hypocritical, it is not just the leader who is viewed negatively but the entire organization. People share their frustrations with family, friends, and the community. Like a cancer, the negative perception grows.
The leader who is authentic in commitment to core values will engage in processes to support mechanisms and practices that encourage demonstration of those core values. Conversely, the formal leader who voices support of core values but demonstrates hypocrisy through actions, or inactions, compromises the integrity of the organization and fails in their responsibility as a leader.
REFERENCES Evans, J. (2010). Core values: Wall posters or culture builders? “Psychology Today.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/smartwork/201008/core-values-wall-posters-or-culture-builders. Lencioni, P. (2002). Making your values mean something. “Harvard Business Review.”
Thomas Underwood, Ph.D., is an independent educator and consultant who supports individual, organizational and community excellence. Thomas is also the Executive Director of the NOTO Arts and Entertainment District.