Walk vs. Talk: Values In Action

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, email, text, WhatsApp, ink and lead, words have never been so ubiquitous. As the saying goes - talk is cheap. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”

In organizations today, I often read and hear virtuous catchphrases being bandied about: Equity! Respect! Transparency! Integrity! Collaboration! Teamwork! Leadership! Communication! Organizations lob these words as they claim them as their operating values, but when I observe these organizations in action, there is often a gap.

If we say we value equity, then why do so many job descriptions for bi-lingual positions pay the same as their monolingual counterparts? If someone is bi-lingual, doesn’t that mean they have more skills than their monolingual peers? Then, how is it not incongruous with equity to pay the bilingual position less? 

If we say we value shared-leadership, then why does the highest-paid person in the room have the most decision making power? How come the directors and c-suite talk 80% of the meetings?

If we say we value collaboration, then why is there no time for employees to work with other departments? How come teams aren’t providing input on the work of their cross-organizational peers?

These are just a few cringe-worthy, and common examples of how we are out of sync with the values we espouse. And that is what I want to speak about: the power of action in a world of words.

To bring about the changes we seek, we must walk the walk. A tried and true path towards behavior change, and thus systems and culture change is the strategic placement of incentives. So, how can we, as leaders of organizations, communities and teams, better incentivize the values and behaviors we need to shift the existing culture, patterns and outcomes? Below are three ways I see impactful organizations living their values:

  • Equity: Incentivise equity by paying positions that are bi-lingual more. Provide bonuses’ and/or perks to the cultural brokers at your organization, those people who are helping your organization connect with diverse perspectives needed to increase your impact. Audit your marketing materials to make sure they reflect the breadth of your community. Purchase products and services from historically disenfranchised demographics.

  • Community: Create a meaningful community (of clients, vendors, employees) by increasing the Community Engagement department’s budget, team size and/or sphere of influence. Provide opportunities for members of all departments to attend community forums and/or events. Participate in local charities, sports leagues and/or service clubs. Buy local.

  • Transparency: Incentivise transparency by providing perks/bonus’ to whistleblowers, making meetings open to all, sharing important documents (e.g. budgets, P&L statements) widely.

Talk is cheap and getting cheaper by the day. Nonprofits boast about their laudable missions, media outlets claim their unbiased reporting, philanthropy speaks to the need for systemic changes, companies brag about their social benefit, and yet, the challenges people in all these sectors seek to change are not shifting rapidly enough. What’s the problem?

We spend more effort engaging in linguistic gymnastics than we do living our laudable values and shifting our incentives to sustain the change we work towards. 

Modeling behavior is one of the most powerful forces for change, not pontificating. If we want the world to bend to our values, we would all be wise to let our values inform our actions and our processes, not our talking points.