Organizational values. Most organizations have official statements of values, printed in documents and on websites, sometimes posted on walls. Sometimes we even talk about them or perhaps it’s more accurate to say we pay them lip-service. However, in my experience, clarity about our organizational values is not only important, it’s practical.
Matt Reed, who writes a column for Inside Higher Ed called “Confessions of a Community College Dean”, put it this way:
*When circumstances change this quickly, plans matter less and values matter more. Plans drawn up on Monday can be rendered moot on Wednesday when a school district, hospital, or town decides to make a change. When decisions have to be made quickly, in the light of an abrupt external change, decision-makers fall back on values. What matters most?”
In this article from November 2020, Reed was writing about the child care issues created and raised by COVID and advocating (hoping) decisions would be made based on values of protecting children while not simply assuming mothers would take care of it. Several months later, we continue to grapple with this particular set of questions, but as we move forward into a fall that is beginning to look more uncertain that we had hoped, (for example, Austin, Texas is now at risk stage 3 with rumors of stage 4 soon to come) we may be in the situation described by Reed soon enough.
Of course, the reality is that we often find ourselves making decisions quickly, or without all the information, or with competing interests at play – often all three at once. And it is then that being clear about one’s own values and the values of one’s organization becomes more important that ever. But just what values are we talking about?
Several years ago, while doing a refresh of a divisional strategic plan, I asked myself and my colleagues this question: “Do we need to define values for our organization when the University already has set of values?” I had begun to wonder how many sets of values we actually needed. Institutional values. Divisional values. Departmental values. Just which ones were we asking staff to live by? Which ones should we be using in our decision-making? To be responsible for all eighteen or so seemed a bit complicated. Ultimately we decided it made more sense for us to use the institutional values as our guiding values and we didn’t create a different list for Student Affairs.
Here is the values statement on the website of UT-Austin. “The core values of the University of Texas at Austin are learning, discovery, freedom, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. Each member of the university is expected to uphold these values through integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect toward peers and community.” If you are counting there are six official values, but there are also five more stated values which seem to me to be the expectation for the way organizational members live out the stated values.
So what’s a leader to do. The resources section includes a couple of articles with ideas for leaders, but most importantly, I think we all need to think and talk and wrestle with values questions regularly. When we are faced with difficult decisions, I think it’s important to ask ourselves and each other about the underlying values questions. When this is our regular practice, it makes it easier to bring our values into play in times of turbulence and change. And in those times when there are no good choices and all decisions are difficult, values-based decision-making can provide us a consistent basis on which to choose as well as confidence that we have done our best by the people in our organizations and our organizations as a whole.
Best of luck with all your decisions over the coming weeks and months!