Leaders, Know What You Value If You Want To Have Impact

Values can act as a compass for leader behavior, using behavior adaptively to pursue what is most important.

It is said that a leader’s effectiveness comes down to their behavior. But what leaders value can be as important. After all, behavior is often a means to an end.

Take Jack, an accomplished executive who cannot resist having the last word in meetings — a power-enhancing display. Jack could stop speaking last on every occasion, but without a deeper reframe, his change would likely be short-lived. He would find other ways to build power distance with his team members.

In our work with leaders, we’ve found that what a leader prioritizes compels certain behaviors more than others and shapes their effectiveness. Leaders may be aware of what is important to them. Still, they may not realize how deeply what they value affects them.

Values Pave The Way To Leadership

We examined how four values — results, power, mission and integrity — influence leadership impact. Does it make any difference if a leader places power or integrity first? Or whether they care more about mission or results? And so on.

Our findings help answer these questions, showing that the more leaders value integrity or mission, the greater their effectiveness. Conversely, the more they put results or power first, the less impactful they are.

What’s more, leadership effectiveness scores even higher when leaders prioritize both mission and integrity. Conversely, it dangerously withers when leaders fixate on both results and power.

If a focus on integrity or mission boosts leadership impact, can it offset the downsides of power or results? It depends.

Integrity doesn’t curb the negative consequences of power, consistent with research suggesting that this combination may increase self-righteousness and reduce self-scrutiny. But mission mitigates them.

In our study, leaders who prioritized both integrity and power performed as poorly as those who valued only power. But those who cared about both mission and power performed better than the other two groups.

Notably, focusing on results and simultaneously valuing integrity or mission also makes a difference. We found that leaders with this dual focus were nearly as impactful as those placing integrity or mission first. And we know why.

On the one hand, holding the mission central puts a leader’s ambition to the service of greater objectives rather than his/her personal goals or fears. On the other hand, valuing integrity, in addition to performance, may stop leaders from resorting to shortcuts when under pressure to achieve results.

Values Orient A Leader’s Conduct

We found that what leaders value is uniquely associated with specific behavior patterns.

For example, leaders who put results first pay limited attention to the organization’s core principles. But they are also more tactical and less open to change. Above all, these leaders use competition, blame and high expectations to manage team performance.

In contrast, overconfidence is a defining trait of leaders who prioritize power. Not only do these leaders rely on personal beliefs at the expense of facts and data. But they are less likely to engage in effective risk management. Unsurprisingly, leaders in this group are also political and bent on creating power distance with other team members. While favoritism is their go-to response to exercise influence, they may also protect status differences by stifling diversity.

Consistent with past research, leaders who put integrity first engage in transparent communication, fair decision-making and inclusive team practices. But their effectiveness also stems from managing team performance by cultivating excellence, fostering trust and creating psychological safety.

Finally, leaders who prioritize mission use the organization’s values as a compass when making decisions and holding others accountable. Yet, what’s most unique about them is their ability to think strategically and simultaneously be helpful to other team members in practical ways.

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Leaders Can Use Values To Boost Their Effectiveness

A focus on values can help leaders avoid the trap of chronic needs, manage values differences across team members, and reframe their biases. Remember Jack? His leadership started evolving the moment he realized the hold that power, as a value, had on him.

Preventing Values From Acting As Chronic Needs. Jack uses power as a thread to weave his leadership. Whether it’s about talking last, siloing himself from the rest of the team or showing preferential treatment, not only is he shrinking his influence in negative ways, but he is often unable to provide nuanced responses. When interactions make him feel powerful, he gets a kick out of it. When they don’t deliver, he doubles down on his internal script.

What’s more, his concern for power is also crowding out other priorities. For example, it may get in the way of practicing “respect,” another value Jack cares about.

Jack has started journaling his interactions at work to track whether his behavior is in the service of unmet priorities or his chronic concern for power. He has also begun taking stock of whether servicing power comes at the expense of other values.

Finally, he’s experimenting with alternative responses — testing his assumptions with others, giving space to the quieter voices on the team and so on. As he expands his behavioral repertoire, Jack is also reconfiguring what’s important to him.

Managing Values Differences. Jack can now see why, at times, there is a gap between what he says and how he behaves: Power has always the last word. But becoming aware of what he prioritizes has also allowed him to realize that things may get lost in translation because he and his team hold different values.

In his mind, power, like his current leadership post, is a prize people gain by winning. Yet everybody else on the team has always thrived on collaboration. Jack is gradually seeing that individual performance and teamwork are not mutually exclusive. As he lets go of the idea that people prove their worth by competing, he’s started giving team members more autonomy to demonstrate what they can do and feel efficacious.

Simultaneously, he’s begun analyzing critical workflow interdependencies with the rest of the team. This process has turned into an opportunity to reframe collaboration. Helping each other is important. But delivering reliably without slowing other colleagues is also another way of cooperating.

While Jack works on himself to archive the belief that building self-worth is about winning, team members relearn the meaning of teamwork.

Reframing Cognitive Biases. In sharpening the focus on what a leader deems important, values inevitably foster bias. As our study shows, putting results first increases the risk of ethical fading and short-termism but also creates a more acute fear of failure. Power, on the other hand, may lead to overconfidence and prop up a clan mentality. And so on.

Lately, Jack has started paying attention to his mental processes. He’s fiercely intellectual, which makes him flinch at the idea of being biased. But now that he’s developed the habit of running an after-decision review, he can see his proclivity to overweigh the upside of an opportunity, especially when he feels in control.

To counter this tendency, he’s started gathering data before making up his mind instead of making his mind up first and then using data to feel corroborated. He’s also seeking the perspective of stakeholders he would have neglected. Of course, he is the final decider, but gaining multiple views is a way to put himself in the shoes of others. And even if this process doesn’t change his decision-making, it shows him what gaps must be closed when the decision is implemented for everybody to be onboard.

Applying the lens of values to leadership shows that leaders’ most significant challenge is not behavior per se but learning to integrate what they value and using behavior adaptively.

Caterina Bulgarella is a culture architect and a member of Ethical Systems’ core team.

Reprinted with permission from Forbes.