By Soraya Fallah & Cklara Moradian
In the corner of the main dining hall, Channy hunched over a brown paper bag, breathing rapidly into it to prevent an impending asthma attack. I reached over to her and sat by her side. I saw the tears roll down her frail face. She looked exhausted. Our nurses were busy tending to patients who had become very ill with food poisoning. There was an atmosphere of panic and chaos, as other social workers were calling 911 to come to their aid. Even today, years later, this vivid memory of Channy’s defeated expression still easily comes to mind. This was the moment in my career as a social work supervisor where I wondered if I should stay with the agency or leave. It was a day filled with inner conflicts and anxiety. The core of these conflicts was that my own personal principles, values, and vision were at odds with the company’s owners and the overall company culture. Channy had long complained that she was tending to too many clients all by herself. As support staff, her labor was often undervalued and taken for granted. She was implicitly told that she is easily replaceable. As a single mother with limited English skills, she felt trapped to put up with the treatment she was receiving from the agency owners. I had tried to intervene, but the lack of employee appreciation seemed entrenched in the way the business operated. Kouzes and Posner (2012) tell us that “[o]nly shared visions have the power to sustain commitment over time” (p. 125). A shared vision was lacking in the company, and it had a devastating impact on the overall culture of the organization. I believe that our personal values affect our behaviors, motivations, vision, and mission. This is true for an organization as well; therefore, there is a direct link between the two.
Reflecting back, I can see that much of the conflict I felt was due to the fact that I had not done enough to lead the company’s culture toward my values, and I had not enlisted others to do so. Sitting next to Channy that day, I felt helpless and wanted to run away from that feeling. As Kouzes and Posner (2012) point out, leaders identify and clarify their values, communicate their values effectively, and lead by example (pp. 43-45). In hindsight, I had always conducted my own behavior according to my values, but I had not inspired others enough to do the same. It wasn’t enough that I thought the treatment Channy was receiving was wrong; I had to enlist others to see it and to find the courage to speak up. Channy’s treatment was symptomatic of a larger systemic issue endemic in the agency for a long time. That moment was a paradigm shift because rather than leaving the company, I stayed to make sure it did not continue. I can say confidently that the overall culture of the company has in fact changed. I didn’t single handedly make this change happen, but as I started to be more clear about my values, as I communicated them more directly, others responded, which led to a shared vision. The institutional values of our company are now much more aligned with my personal values but are also much more aligned with the values required of a company built to give social services to the public.
The Company Owners’ Values
The company owners, specifically the CEO George, were very clear about the values most important to him. These were mostly profit-driven values such as “financial gain,” “competition,” and “power and authority.” As Covey (2004) describes it, these values are “money-centered” where “[p]rofit is [the] decision-making criterion” (pp. 55-58). He clearly expressed these values and led by example. On a monthly basis, George would come into our meetings and ask the employees: “Why are we here?” The employees were expected to say: “YOUR Company’s profits” or “The bottom line” (meaning money). Managers like George established authority by reminding everyone that they were the owners and that their interests mattered more than the “mission statements” of the agency.
Perhaps, the owners’ values, combined with other more compassionate values, would have led to a productive environment that could have benefited everyone. Unfortunately, without “honesty” and “ethical practices,” profit-driven values led to a corrupt culture and work functions at the expense of those we were supposed to serve. So how did these profit-driven values manifest? Channy was not the first person whose health was impacted by the working conditions. One of our drivers, Robert, who also worked in the kitchen serving over 200 participants a day, felt very sick one day and was visibly in pain. Several of the other employees, including myself, implored him to take a break, but he didn’t feel comfortable to do so because he was worried George would accuse him of being a lazy employee. He was barely making ends meet on his hourly wage and really needed the extra hours. By noon, he was in the nursing office with a dangerously high blood pressure. I remember thinking that work was not a safe place. The ways these profit-driven and exploitative values manifested themselves were widespread, but they were specifically reflected in the quality of services provided to the participants. The owners wanted to do the minimum required of them and make the most profit. They followed the legal mandates but did not go “the extra mile” to provide adequate services to the people who relied on us to do so. For example, we are supposed to provide at least one hot meal to the clients who attend our community-based services facility. The state of California subsidizes some of the cost of these meals. George was more concerned about fulfilling this requirement by spending the least amount of money than catering to the health and needs of the clients. Our participants are low income and have chronic health problems. Feeding them low-quality food could harm them—they come to us to heal.
Another example of how “money-centered” values manifested in the running of the organization was that managers hired only the number of staff mandated by the state. They were not interested in hiring an adequate number of quality staff. As a result, people were overworked and overwhelmed. The clients did not receive enough attention or care. We were always understaffed. Personnel were implicitly judged and punished for taking sick days or taking breaks. Because we were short staffed, everyone came in early and left late without proper compensation. George would exploit people’s fears of losing their jobs by reminding them he could always hire someone else. The company lacked staff development and training programs. This resulted in people who came to work underprepared to meet the demands of their jobs and grew resentful.
Most employees were “grudgingly compliant,” rather than “committed,” “enrolled,” or even “genuinely compliant” (Senge, 1994, p. 219). They were not inspired by the vision set forth by the owners and did not feel a connection to the values of “profit over people.” Worse yet was the fact that the company’s mission statement exclusively stated the care of people as a priority, but this was not being followed.
My Personal Values
I grew up socially conscious and have dedicated the majority of my life to human rights, advocacy for a better world, and equality. I became a social worker because of a fundamental belief in giving to others. Intuitively, I thought of these as my values. Reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective People taught me that these are in fact my principles. Covey (2004) says: “Principles are not values. A gang of thieves can share values, but they are in violation of the fundamental principles we're talking about [such as fairness, human dignity, integrity, and honesty…]. Principles are the territory. Values are maps. When we value correct principles, we have truth -- a knowledge of things as they are” (p.16).
I have since tried to articulate my personal values and can see that they are directly tied to my principles. The values most important to me but that have at times been at odds with the institutional values of my workplace are “integrity,” “responsibility and accountability,” and “public service” (Covey, 2004) As Kouzes and Posner (2004) note, values “inform the priorities” and decisions one makes (p. 49). If my values, which determine my decisions, are in conflict with George’s values or the company’s culture, then we are not working toward a similar vision. Unaligned values are effectively unaligned priorities.
I entered the social work field to serve those in need, especially disadvantaged populations such as immigrant people and the elderly. It was very difficult for me to think in terms of company profit. When I was discouraged from spending adequate time with clients, when I was told that number of “billable” people to which I attended mattered more than the quality of the time I spent with them, I felt discouraged. My environment was laden with disharmony and stress.
The Paradigm Shift
On the day that I was seriously considering leaving the company, I felt powerless over the circumstances. I didn’t think I could change how Channy, Robert, or anyone else was treated. The machinery of the agency felt bigger than me. I didn’t believe that I could convince George to serve better food, hire and train more people, or ensure employees came to a safe environment. Because the agency expertly walked the fine line of meeting all legal requirements, I didn’t know to whom to turn. I made a conscious decision, however, to change this by explicitly expressing my values and, as Senge (1994) states, “seeing the world anew” (p. 68). Though at the time I didn’t use the term “values,” I intuitively acted according to my close-held principles of “public service” and “integrity.” I also began asking that others join me. I wanted to show that we should all be responsible and accountable to the commitments we have made to the clients coming to us for help.
The first day of this paradigm shift, I chose to speak up at the meeting when we were asked “Why are we here?” I stood up and said: “We are here to empower our clients, to give them a voice, and to treat them with respect by providing the best service we possibly can. I look forward to working with all the other supervisors and every employee here to do so.”
Although most people in the meeting agreed and casually acknowledged what I had said, I knew that words were not enough for a cultural shift from profit driven to service driven. As Kouzes and Posner (2012) note, “[o]ne of the best ways to prove that something is important is by doing it yourself and setting an example” (p. 17). Megan Tschannen-Moran, in the essay “Becoming a Trustworthy Leader,” echoes these sentiments when she points out that “[d]iscontinuity between word and example will quickly erode [the leaders] ability to lead” (Jossey-Bass, 2007, p. 103). I had to be the embodiment of these words.
I also knew that it would take more than words to change the institution’s culture. As Ronald S. Bart, in the essay “Culture in Question,” writes, “to change a school’s culture requires the courage and skill not to remain victimized by the toxic elements of the school culture but rather to address them” (Jossey-Bass, 2007, p. 162). Though Bart was talking about school culture, his statement is also true within any agency or company. I knew that I could not take this paradigm shift in values on alone, so I decided to enlist my co-workers in this journey. I held a meeting with my team and asked them to come up with ways we could improve the hot meals provided to clients without driving up the cost too much. We worked on this for a while before we presented it to the owners and explained the importance of making these improvements. When the owners agreed, I noticed that my co-workers showed enthusiasm and were receptive to other ideas. They felt a sense of ownership over the changes and wanted to see it succeed, so they helped implement the changes. The clients also expressed gratitude to the owners and said they wanted to attend the center more often. This encouraged the owners to continue to be open to our ideas. The owners saw that even though they were spending a little more money on the meals, people were attending more often, which increased attendance rates and profits.
The next change was that I started writing words on the board that aligned with my values such as “We Receive by Giving to Others” so everyone who passed by could see what was important to us. I also asked others to share their values by writing mottos and personal philosophies. Kouzes and Posner (2012) tell us that “[r]esearchers have documented the power of language in shaping thoughts and actions” (p. 80). It was clear that as people put inspiring words on the wall, they felt responsible to act in accordance to them.
Slow but Steady Change
Slowly, the environment felt more accepting. Kouzes and Posner (2012) write “people are more loyal when they believe their values and those of the organization are aligned. The quality and accuracy of communication, and the integrity of the decision-making process, increase when people feel part of the same team.” They go on to tell us that “when there’s congruence between individual values and organizational values, there’s significance payoff for leaders and their organizations” (p.63). My own experience confirms this. Employees became more involved as they felt their ideas reflected in the decision-making process. We started to hold alternative meetings on a regular basis where we discussed ways we could improve the company. It was empowering for everyone involved. In the past, we had been discouraged from reporting issues such as elderly abuse, or when we did, we were not received with an open attitude. One of the most important changes we implemented was to stress that this was our moral and legal duty. We developed a daily break schedule for everyone so they knew they had some time set aside every day no matter how hectic the daily tasks became.
Values are directly related to a company’s vision. Kouzes and Posner (2012) say that “shared values are the internal compass that enable people to act both independently and interdependently” (p. 61). As more of our values were reflected in the everyday running of the company, a shared vision emerged. I believe that when we have a sense of ownership toward the vision of an organization, we feel a greater connection. Senge (1994) says that “[i]f people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is ‘sign up’ for someone else’s” (p. 211). However, if people bring their own aspirations and values to the workplace and create a shared vision, it can be transformative (Senge, 1994, p. 211). He distinguishes between “extrinsic” and “intrinsic” visions. He says “[a] shared vision especially one that is intrinsic, uplifts people’s aspirations. Work becomes part of pursuing a larger purpose embodied in the organizations’ products or services” (p. 208). This was in fact the case in my experience. As people became more involved in finding innovative ways to help our clients, they were more committed to the work and felt they were working toward a greater purpose.
Kouzes and Posner (2012) write that “[o]rganizations with a strong corporate culture based on a foundation of shared values outperform other firms by a huge margin” (p. 59). This is reflected in our company’s growth. Though a great deal still needs to be done and many of us, including myself, are still in the process of developing personal mastery and other important leadership skills, there is much more harmony in the workplace. Compromises have been made to address the incongruence in personal values with the institutional values, and we have found success, as well as failed attempts. However, the biggest lesson for me is that we are never complete victims of our circumstances and surroundings. We have the ability to touch the hearts of those around us and enlist them as agents of change.
Cline, A. (2017, March 4). Virtue Ethics: Morality and Character. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/virtue-ethics-morality-and-character-249866.
Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.
Jossey-Bass (Ed.). (2007). The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations.
Senge, P. M. (1994). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.
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