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Creating a Value-Driven Environment: Avoiding The, “Should haves….”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
October 13, 2019

“I understand what you did, but you should have…..” These types of statements by leaders or peers in any setting, but especially in a public sector setting, can damage workplace relationships and create frustration for all. Essentially, these types of statements are the outcome of trying to apply personal values to our expectations of others. This is troublesome because it presumes a complete sharing of values. In a public agency embracing a diverse workforce or seeking to provide services to a diverse community, it fails to recognize the diversity of values—the diversity of people—in and around the workspace.

Individual values are firmly established early in life. They tend to evolve slowly over time, though a significant life event can create a rapid value shift in any individual or organization.  One activity I have used often when teaching values is to have individual learners identify what they believe are their most important personal values. Later they are asked to identify what they believe are the most important values of their organizations.  As part of the activity, they are asked to discuss any variances in responses among class members, and between their personal values and those of their organization.

In the discussions related to these activities, there are two common take-aways. The first is that values vary greatly in a small group of 20-25 learners, which suggests significant variance in individual values in larger organizations. The second is that personal values are rarely fully aligned, and sometimes not partially aligned, with organizational values. All of this suggests the potential for value-conflict in the workplace when addressing gray areas. This might contribute to the interpretation, “You should have…” 

There are times when the statement, “You should have,” might be appropriate, but this would be limited to instances when there are specific criteria for acceptable performance and an employee failed to meet them. However, if it is a gray area, and policies and procedures can never cover all areas of organizational concern, employees at all levels are left to interpret the situation, making a decision based upon their interpretation. They will do so through filters created by their own values or through their understanding of the organizational values. To come back to them later and tell them, “You should have,” premises that your own interpretation of the situation through your own values is disrespectful, futile and often contributes to morale and motivational problems in the workplace. This does not have to happen.

Value-driven organizations are often espoused as the ideal, but it is important to recognize that they do not emerge spontaneously. They must be carefully crafted, implemented and sustained. To do so requires the active engagement of leaders at all levels of the organization. Some of the actions public sector leaders must consider are:

  • Recognizing that diverse groups will have diverse value sets, and complete alignment of values among all employees, or between individual employees and the organization, is highly unlikely.
  • Clearly, actively identifying and communicating mission-oriented organizational values to everyone.
  • Acting with integrity, which in this instance means visibly modeling the mission-oriented organizational values both in behaviors and decisionmaking.
  • Providing some form of discussion-based, interactive activities to explore how to approach gray areas in policy, using organizational values to frame appropriate response to scenarios.
  • Providing guidance for employees on means to seek clarification if they find themselves facing some form of values conflict.

If public administrators undertake such actions, and if they take the time necessary to help employees at all levels of the organization (including themselves) frame decisions on organizational values, they are less likely to encounter circumstances where individuals act in an unacceptable manner. If no such direct, active approaches are undertaken, later telling the employee, “You should have,” is more likely going to be a reflection of poor organizational leadership than on any inadequacy of an individual employee.

Public sector organizations exist to deliver high quality services to the community, seeking to provide for the needs and expectations of diverse groups within the community in a professional manner. To be effective in achieving this purpose, public sector organizations must recognize and embrace the value of diversity both within the communities they serve, and also within their own workforce. With diversity of needs, expectations and perspective comes a diversity of values. Public sector leaders must recognize this, trying to create an organizational culture that is mission-driven, focused on organizational values and which seeks to find means to identify and address value conflicts in a positive manner. In doing so, public sector leaders are more likely to achieve higher levels of success in all areas; they might find they are developing their workforce better to meet any number of emerging challenges in the future.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, served in local government for over 30 years. Currently, he serves on the public administration core faculty at Capella University and is the President of the Hampton Roads (VA) Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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