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The New Year is a great time to seize the opportunity of hitting your "refresh" button. Although it's certainly something we can do any time, a new year is a natural time to make a fresh start, to take stock of what's important to you, what you're doing, and why. When we clarify our values as individuals, we can then update, re-prioritize or renew our commitment to the things we hold dear.

As it goes with the individual, so too with the organization, which also needs renewal of its collective spirit, just as people do. It falls to leaders to initiate and guide the renewal process.

Discovering and developing shared values is an important and fruitful avenue for organizational refreshment. Clarifying and articulating key values may stand alone or be part of a larger organizational renewal process. Either approach will yield many positive benefits.

Values are the underlying principles and beliefs that guide our behavior. It's what we hold dear and believe in. They are the reasons we make the choices and decisions we do. Whether we are conscious of our values or not, they underlie all our actions and behaviors.

In organizations, where effectiveness depends on the collaboration of many individuals, it stands to reason that the degree of commitment to similar values will have a dramatic impact. If people are working from significantly different sets of values, misunderstandings and problems will repeatedly arise. Conflicts will be the norm rather than the exception. We are all well aware of the cost to productivity and morale of this familiar yet unfortunate scenario.

In contrast, in organizations where values are openly discussed and agreed upon, employees work easily and comfortably together. Time and resources are efficiently utilized. Agreement on shared values brings greater cohesion, cooperation and efficiency to the work of the enterprise. Productivity and morale are high.

To illustrate this point, simply consider your own experience as an employee. Were you more productive and happier when you and your co-workers were in sync on why and how you were going about your work?

Clarifying our values serves as a reminder about what's important to us. This gives us a greater sense of purpose—that intangible yet profound internal motivator that most of us want and need. For better or for worse, the workplace has increasingly become the venue where people find identity and meaning.  

In addition to being meaningful for individuals, clear values for an organization are extremely practical. Here are just a couple of examples: First, in times of crisis, conflict, or high ambiguity, when difficult decisions need to be made, values provide guidance, much like a compass provides direction. Leaders whose companies have the benefit of a strong foundation with a clear set of values have a big advantage when tough decisions need to be made.

This was illustrated at a company sued by an unhappy former shareholder. The stress of the situation was intense and prolonged, as the legal process unfolded over a period of years. Ultimately, the suit was dismissed as without merit, but the personal toll on the principals named was significant. However, the company's leaders were true to their values, and endured the unfortunate situation with strength and grace, reinforcing their strong code of mutual support and teamwork, protecting the other employees as much as possible from the anxiety of the situation. In the face of very challenging circumstances, the company sustained its ability to produce quality products and maintain its high standards of conduct.

Having a defined set of organizational values is also extremely helpful for all of the talent management functions: from recruitment efforts to hiring decisions, on-boarding, performance management, and reward and recognition systems. All of these critical activities will be far more successful when executed within a framework of clearly agreed upon values.

For example, as part of creating a five-year strategic plan, a company re-visited their core values, which hadn't been dusted off and discussed in many years. The result was a signal update - revising, rewording, and clarifying their values to reflect the new vision and changes facing the growth-oriented organization. These values led to revamping the hiring practices, new-employee orientations and performance review processes.

Wise leaders will create meaningful opportunities for exploring guiding beliefs, starting with examining their own values as a leader. The next step is expanding that exercise to include other people in the organization. It can be as simple as having purposeful conversations focused on discovering and affirming shared values. More elaborate methods can be employed, but the simpler and more direct the better. Involvement, participation, openness and candor are the necessary criteria for the exercise. Whatever the values may be, the key is to discover and articulate the common denominators.

Remember, for values clarification to be an authentic opportunity for organizational renewal, it needs to be a process of discovery and dialogue, not a recitation of previously declared company values nor a pronouncement of the leader's values. It's the process of engaging in the inquiry and discovering what emerges that gives the experience power and utility. Conducted with integrity, it can be a potent opportunity for renewal and re-commitment to guiding principles that can serve every employee every day. To be clear about what you are doing and why you are doing it — and know that your co-workers share those same commitments — is the stuff of great teamwork. Clarity of shared values helps a diverse group of people find their common purpose.                   •••

Mary Luttrell is a business strategy advisor who has helped hundreds of companies turn challenges into opportunities and increase their success. She provides services in visionary planning, strategic marketing, employee engagement, productive and inspiring meetings, and mastery level leadership coaching. Ms. Luttrell is an ISO-Certified Management Consultant whose firm has been named one of the 100 Leading Management Consulting Firms in North America. Contact Mary at 707-887-2256 or thecoach@sonic.net and visit her website at www.maryluttrell.com.