Recently, I was having drinks with a group of successful Denver-area CEOs. One of them, who I’ll call Robert, leads a mid-sized financial services company that had just rolled out a revitalized version of their mission, vision and values.
It didn’t go well.
“It was integrity,” Robert shared. “Integrity shot us in the foot.”
Integrity was one of the new values. Robert’s company defined integrity as: Doing the right thing even when nobody else is looking. It seemed straightforward enough to Robert and other leaders.
But the day after the new values were rolled out, one manager told Robert that in the name of “integrity”, a direct report had lied to him to protect a teammate.
Defining your values doesn’t help employees understand what they mean.
The next day, Robert got an email from an employee who, in the name of “integrity”, had informed her manager that a colleague had made critical errors that contributed to a late delivery. The manager reprimanded her for not being a “team player”.
“We’ve defined integrity, but nobody knows what it means,” Robert complained. “It’s a total mess!”
I nodded and let Robert know that I understood his frustrations. I also let him know that his experience isn’t unique. Across organizations, I’ve noticed that even great leaders often find it easy to communicate strategic direction, but struggle to help employees adopt important values and behaviors.
“What do I do now ?” Robert asked.
Stories are a more effective and enduring way to show our values in action.
“Keep going,” I shared. “You’ve already identified the problem: defining your values doesn’t help employees understand what they mean. Now switch to an approach that’s more effective and enduring: tell stories about your values.”
“How can telling stories help?” Robert asked.
“Our stories are the only literal interpretation of our values,” I said. “If you want your employees to know what integrity means, you have to show them in a way that they will feel it, remember it, and live it. That happens with a story.”
“Well, how do I tell that story… or get one of my employees to tell it?”
I smiled. “Let me tell you about what we do at Avanoo…”
—Daniel Jacobs, Avanoo CEO & Co-founder
Daniel Jacobs is a husband, father, inventor, and storyteller. His work has been featured on Fortune, Inc. Magazine, Business Insider, Apple News, HuffPost, and most major news publications in the United States. He is CEO and co-founder of Avanoo, which uses the power of stories to drive connection, belonging, and performance in the workplace.
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