I am particularly stunned by the plight of refugees pouring into Europe at the moment. As I witness the flow of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other countries, as well as Europe’s slow response to the crisis, I can’t help drawing a parallel with what happens in the corporate world.
I feel for the thousands of people fleeing their country. Behind the numbers – tens and hundreds of thousands – we must never forget that for each person seeking refuge, there is an individual life, a story, and a personal drama. Witnessing so many individuals desperate to find a new home can be a values shaking moment.
I must confess there is another reason why I am particularly interested and shocked by what is unfolding across Europe. In 1997 when the European Union (EU) was still only fifteen Member States strong (if I remember well), I took part in the design of a centralised fingerprint European database and system (EURODAC) to process multiple asylum seeker applications. This was on the back of the Dublin Regulation, voted in 2003, which aimed to determine the Member State responsible for an asylum claim. Usually, the Member State responsible was the state through which the asylum seeker first entered the EU.
The Dublin and the EURODAC Regulations were put in place with the best intentions: to facilitate exchange of information and speed up the process of asylum claims, while avoiding some of the fraud that took place before their implementation. When the Dublin Regulation was designed, the EU was smaller and it made a lot of sense that the Member State where the refugee had first entered the European space be responsible for processing the claim.
But nobody had predicted what is unfolding before our eyes today: thousands of people entering the EU space by foot, day after day, fleeing war-torn countries. What we are witnessing is unprecedented in Europe’s contemporary history.
And it puts tremendous pressure on EU values.
As a consequence of this increasing pressure, the Union is fragmenting whilst it tries to respond to the crisis. The values of collaboration, sharing of information and mutual help are being tested. Hungary is closing its borders while trying to register all asylum seekers entering its territory in order to apply the Dublin Regulation. Germany announces that it will offer shelter to thousands of refugees and that the Dublin Regulation will be momentarily bypassed. France is following Germany’s position, although with reduced numbers of refugee intake. And countries such as Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia are suffering following Hungary’s closed borders. The system that was designed is faltering and values that everyone thought were shared and widely adopted are shattering.
The same thing can take place in your organisation.
What happens when the blowtorch is applied to a company’s values? Do they remain solid and uncompromised or are they rapidly forgotten? In times of crisis, the real values of the organisation will surface. Not the values written in the annual report, but the values that are lived across the organisation. Similarly to what is currently happening in the EU, company values that were so carefully crafted and socialised can shatter under pressure before anyone has time to realise what’s happening.
Would your company values resist the blowtorch test?
If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you've probably done a good job – you are among the few organisations that can be proud of their values and declare hand on heart “those are the values we live by here - hail, rain or shine.” If not, do not despair, you are not alone. But it’s time to do something about it.
The top values we live by – and this applies to us individuals or to organisations – are not all equal. They constitute a hierarchy. When you apply the blowtorch, the real hierarchy comes out.
So here’s my advice to organisations developing their values:
- Make sure they are aligned to your strategy.
- Extract those that will help you create the biggest shift and give them prominence.
- Don’t come up with a long list – staff will have no idea what to do and will forget them quickly.
- Take them through the blowtorch test. If they fail, ask yourself whether they are the right values for the organisation.
- Compare them with each other, two by two, and determine the strongest one. Do this for each pair of values. This will help you be clear on the hierarchy that underpins your values.
This approach will give you a short, powerful list of meaningful values that can be socialised throughout the business and shared with the outside world. The hierarchy itself does not necessarily need to be shared, but it will help you in times of crisis.
If you are reading the last line of my banter, it probably means you’ve already applied the blowtorch to your company values - in your head at least. I’m curious as to which value(s) passed the test?
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