Jeff Judy

Jeff's Thoughts - July 25, 2018

Values: Top-down vs. Bottom-up

Your institution probably has a list of "values" that it shares with new employees, as well as with other stakeholders. You may call it something else, like "Statement of Principles" or "Our Core Beliefs", but you know what I mean. It is a statement of broad characteristics that should apply to how you do business, how you interact with customers, how employees treat each other, how you carry yourselves in the community.

This list is, of course, created by your leadership. It is a top-down directive intended to guide the behavior of every employee.

It is the official list.

The question that interests me, as you might suspect, is how that official vision plays out in the daily operations pursued by your staff. Do these values have any staying power, any real influence, beyond the new-employee orientation sessions?

One way to find out is to get a "bottom-up" list of values and compare that list to the official version. Let me suggest a simple way to do that.

Let's concentrate on new employees. I assume that there is a period of orientation, and of both formal and informal training, that may run weeks or months when you get a new hire (even for experienced staff you lure away from other institutions). Depending on the schedule that fits your organization, and the job description in question, it might be six months, or nine, or a year before your new employee has built up some experience actually carrying out the job functions in your workplace.

In other words, we want to come back to that employee when they have "done real work" for at least a few months. And then we give them a simple task. We say:

"Based solely on what you have observed in your work, write a list of values that you believe underpins the way business is done here at XYZ." In other words, set the relatively new employee the task of deducing the guiding principles that are woven into everything employees do at your institution. And then compare this list to the official one.

It is obvious that the two lists won't be a perfect match, and that's okay. We are looking for big differences, or even outright contradictions, between the two lists. What we really want to know is what is reinforced at the front lines, what seems important in the daily work staff perform, how the pressures and constraints of supervision and systems and reward and punishment shape employee behavior.

This is more than a mere thought experiment. It can provide valuable insights to your leadership. Consider, after all, what the bottom-up list at Wells Fargo, a year or two ago, would have revealed: namely, that the primary value was booking as many accounts as possible, more important than anything listed on the official "Statement of Values."

Stating values that don't play out in the daily efforts of the front lines is a waste of everyone's time. Your new employees look at your work practices with fresh eyes. Find out what they see.