Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Are You Out of Sync With Your Values?

Edgar Schein is a colossus for those of us who think hard about how people and organizations work. His core model explains corporate culture, and it’s one that we can take and use as we look to maximize our own potential and do work that makes a difference, work that matters.

Schein says you can understand an organization on three levels:

The first level is the Artifacts that we can see and experience when we come into an organization. It’s everything from the way people dress to the organizational chart, the layout of the office to the technology people are using.

The second level is what he calls the Espoused Values of the organization. That’s what the CEO goes on about in her speeches and what appears in the “help wanted” ads.

The final level, deeper and more elusive than the first two, is what Schein calls the Basic or Unspoken Assumptions. This is what shows up in the habits of the organization, the way people automatically behave. It’s the deeper rhythms of the organization that reflect what the organization truly values.

You can guess that when all three levels are in alignment, you have a powerful organizational culture. What we say is how we behave and the stuff around us supports the cultural and brand experience.

When these three levels don’t quite jive you get a weak culture. As you might suspect, there’s often a disconnect between the espoused values and the unspoken assumptions. (A classic case is “our people are our greatest asset” in an organization that clearly sacrifices employees on the altar of profit.) It also explains why slapping a bright coat of paint on the walls and having uncomfortable yet funky furniture in the reception area doesn’t make a dent in a corporate culture.

When all three levels are in alignment, you have a powerful organizational culture.

Where Are You Out of Sync?

Let’s apply Schein’s model to the way you’re showing up in your own life.

Start with the Espoused Values. “Personal values” has something of a life coach-y ring to it, but understanding what matters to you and what you want to be known for in this world can help you bring a more powerful version of yourself into play. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to go deeply into ways of uncovering and refining your values, but there are plenty of resources out there to help. I’m a particular fan of Dick Richard’s book, Is Your Genius at Work?

Once you’ve started getting clear on values, let’s go to the Artifact level and see just how those values manifest. How do you embody what you stand for, from the way you dress to how you arrange your workspace?

And from here, we drop to the Unspoken Assumptions. This is the hardest to understand, as you have to create the time and space to reflect on how you behave and to what degree that behavior is in sync with your espoused values. The extent of that challenge becomes apparent in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit in which he cites a Duke University study that says at least 45 percent of our behavior is habitual. In other words, almost half of what we do, we do unthinkingly. (If this makes you stop and think, “who’s really running this thing called Me?” I’m right there with you.)

You have to create the time and space to reflect on how you behave.

Find Your Values With A “This/Not That” Test.

In my experience, most people aren’t clear on their own values. Even if they have a list, it’s often as vapid as any organization’s: empty words that speak to some sort of Platonic ideal that has no traction in reality and no impact on behavior. In other words, they exist at the “espoused” level rather than the “assumption” level.

An exercise taken from the world of branding might help. When I worked in the world of innovation, I would often work with a client to position a new product. Unfortunately, most clients had a vocabulary of less than six words to describe the positioning they wanted, not nearly as precise as we needed to be.

Most people’s values are often as vapid as any organization’s.
A simple “This/Not That” exercise helps. For instance, a client might say they wanted a new vodka to be “premium”. We would help them be more specific and descriptive by having them articulate pairs of what it was and wasn’t like. We’d upgrade “premium” to: “Its The Hamptons but it’s not Lake Como; it’s black but it’s not platinum; it’s evening but it’s not ‘after midnight’; it’s the 60s but it’s not the 90s; it’s Audi but it’s not Mercedes; it’s Justin Timberlake but it’s not George Clooney.”

We can use this tool to maximize our own potential. Reflect back on those times when you were at your best. Times when you were really showing up as the best, most powerful, most fully inhabited version of yourself. Times when you were doing Great Work. Write down five or so words that sum that up.

Now, for every word describing you at your best, pair it up with a word that is not the failed or opposite version of your Great Work, instead choose the ho-hum, mediocre version. For instance, here’s what is on my This/Not That list right now:

  • Step Forward not Hold Back
  • Playful not Serious
  • Loose not Tight
  • Curious not Knowing
  • Provocative not Sycophantic
  • “Bigger picture” not ”it really matters”

There are two benefits in this exercise: First, it is grounded in how you actually show up, so you build your espoused values up from your behavior rather from some fantasy you have about what you actually think is important.  And secondly, it helps you start noticing the gap between your espoused values and what sub-optimal looks like.

What about you?

What are your “This/Not That” words?

Michael Bungay Stanier

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Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of Do More Great Work and a Senior Partner at Box of Crayons.
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