Leadership lab: “Values are a blurry mess.”

Human Resources


Kathleen Vangronsvelt began her story with that comment during the last leadership lab of this year. She is working on her PhD at the KU Leuven and writes about how people deal with values, how they can be measured and what effect they have on things like 'performance', for example.


“In other words, how can we apply values more objectively?” After the workshop, the mess remained blurry, but the insight had grown that we can feel them unequivocally and that they affect our everyday behavior.

1. Values steer us

Vangronsvelt defined values as “desired end states”. Values are, by definition, steering us and help coworkers make choices or, in any case, prioritize doubt and vagueness. Especially in a volatile, uncertain world, they create an alternative to the hierarchic structure and control. Both cases of Colruyt and Thomas More showed this abundantly. “The values are central to us to make the fusion of colleges in different cities into one strong story,” Thomas More’s Carl Fouton said. You can find their four values everywhere, soon even in their tea bags. Lisa Derycke, employee for Colruyt: “In our company, everything has to do with growth. The new stores and the large number of employees put our culture under pressure and because of this, we spend a lot of time and attention on values."


2. For better or for worse?

“Research has pointed out that people will follow the values of the organization most easily when the approach is both top down as well as bottom up.” Values can be enforced. Just think of branding through posters, brochures, gadgets, introduction workshops and other things. But excessive normative pressure might make people feel threatened in their own individual values, which causes them only to partake pro forma. The cynicism will not be far off, then. “They do not mind spending some money on that,” was one of the responses from a participant's organization. In that moment, values are not an alternative for central direction, but just an extra power tool that represses diversity.


3. Fight or flight, or...

The participants had no problem thinking of moments when values clashed. “My boss chooses control and puts pressure on us. I, however, believe in creating trust.” “A colleague got angry when I wanted to start up a redundancy procedure for a coworker who often called in sick.” “I can feel that my boss has a hidden agenda and I have a tough time dealing with that.” It was just as easy to describe the feeling at a conflict of values: anger, frustration, hurt. And from these negative emotions fight or flight reactions easily stem. Research has clearly shown that value conflicts or threats have a negative influence on the commitment and well-being. At the same time, they are epidemically present in organizations.


4. Giving value conflicts a place

Top down clarity is important, because it is the goal to achieve more solidarity in the direction the company is going. On the other hand, this top down clarity also carries the risk of estrangement, pressure and uncertainty: “What are they thinking? Do I still belong here? Am I doing well?” There is another path apart from flight and fight: developing a value consciousness. Conflicts do not have to be ‘solved’, but should be allowed to exist and be called as such. People always strive for a value-fit. They want to belong. That is a basic necessity. However, they want to be seen individually and want to be acknowledged just as well. By giving conflicts a place, both become possible. People integrate fixed differences in values themselves and that is an individual process in any case. The true challenge is not to polarize and to help determine the differences. To achieve this, an attitude that does not fixate on the values, but on mutual curiosity and respect, is needed, without losing sight of 'the norm'.

“I actually still don’t know a lot more,” a participant said after the lab. Should you pay a lot of attention to values or not? Should you measure them or not? Implicitly or explicitly. The question remained open. Another participant answered spontaneously: “But I did discover that they are interesting and important questions.” It is there, between that field of tension, that value-based leadership takes place: formulating values clearly and making them binding is a lever for more than leadership. At the same time, you must not let binding formalities and discussions about the content become too important, or your values will not survive.

Leadership labs are part of the knowledge partnership with the Expertise Center Leadership.