Every company has them and every leader loves talking about them: values and behaviors. Together they form a company’s culture. We all know that the values printed in a glossy corporate report or proudly displayed on the walls of the lobby at headquarters are not necessarily the values people live by on a daily basis.

One reason for this is that values might be stated in abstract terms, so people interpret them in their own way. For example, take a value like ‘unbossed’, popularized by Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter in their book Unboss. When you as a leader have operated for years in a hierarchical, directed or ‘bossed’ environment, ‘unbossed’ can be interpreted as being the direct opposite. That is, instead of making decisions and issuing orders, you now let people think and decide for themselves. In turn, they can interpret that as a license to adhere to the old, bossed ways of working for their teams.

There is, however, another reason and it is often overlooked. Values shape the decisions people make when no one is looking. What we tend to forget to take into account is, who are people making those decisions for? That is where your stakeholders come in.

Every company has the same five stakeholders: customer, employees, partners, shareholders and communities. However, every company also has a choice in how they prioritize these stakeholders, and that affects which values are perceived by people as more important than others.

For example, in the offshore helicopter industry, safety is regarded as a top priority. The intent is zero harm to people and the environment. Consequently, safety levels are very high and, some would argue, better than in fixed wing aviation. However, the industry has been treading water since world oil prices collapsed in 2014. Offshore oil-and-gas companies have tightened their belts and, as a result, helicopter operators have taken a beating for the past five years. The calls to minimize cost and win bids are therefore at times drowning out those focusing on safety. In instances where commercial pressures do win out, it means that not employees and customers and their health and wellbeing are the top priority, but the company and its numbers. BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster is an infamous example of this.

What this means for those leading cultural transformations to create, for example, agile or learning organizations is that simply introducing new values to shift mindsets is not enough. You need to start by determining which stakeholder is perceived as most important and possibly change that priority before new values can be seen as meaningful and become embraced.

For instance, people who have worked in a ‘bossed’ environment for many years are used to their boss being the primary stakeholder and not, for example, customers. The boss might have grown accustomed to this over the years and built his or her career on the perception of knowing more and better than those lower down the hierarchy. Until those beliefs and perceptions about identity and status have shifted, a cultural transformation focused implicitly or explicitly on another stakeholder will spin its wheels.

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Arnoud Franken

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