Have you ever been on the London Tube? They play a recording of the voice of a very refined and polite woman gently intoning, “Mind the gap,” to make sure you don’t fall in the small space between the train and the platform. It’s very helpful, and I just wish we had one for organizational values in the business world. The gap between what you say or think your values are, and what they actually are, is one of the most important things you can pay attention to as a leader. In consulting jargon, we call this the difference between “espoused theory” and “theory in use.” Or you could just call it “Doing what you say.”
Granted, no one is perfect and there will always be some gap between what you say you value and what you do in practice. There needs to remain a creative tension in an organization’s values so that they guide and inform rather than serve as a straight jacket. That said, leadership’s job is to narrow the gap and to make sure it never gets too wide.
I’ve worked at organizations with explicit corporate values that didn’t amount to much. No organization can thrive under those conditions. The best-case scenario is that the values are just on the website and no one ever talks about them. The worst is when values are actively promoted and flagrantly violated. It’s disheartening to see the value of “innovation” printed on your business card and then go to a meeting where leadership kills every new idea. It’s more demotivating than if they’d never mentioned innovation in the first place.
I think this concept will become more important for organizations moving forward. The rise of social media and the influx of workers from the Millennial Generation will drive this change. Millennials gravitate towards work with meaning and explicit values and social media makes it much harder for hierarchies to control the conversation. Smart organizations and leaders will hear that woman’s voice in the back of their minds as they make decisions, “mind the gap.”
Alan Pentz is co-founder of Corner Alliance, Inc, a Washington DC-based consulting firm specializing in program management, leadership development, and emerging technologies.