I hear from people all the time that concepts like vision, mission, and values are just “feel good ideals” that, in the end, really don’t make a difference in the real, day-to-day work of a company and its employees. It’s an even more common view during tough economic times. They talk of toiling with these ideals as “soft skills,” with the tacit implication that even thinking about them, let alone addressing them, is an act of self-indulgence rather than necessity. This is despite all the evidence that shows people who find purpose in their work and who align with their employer’s priorities are happier, more productive, and more loyal to their company.
To illustrate the point, Jay Conger shares this adage, “Two stone masons who, while working on the same project, were asked what they were doing. The first replied, ‘I’m cutting stone;’ the second: ‘I’m building a great cathedral.’” Conger explained, “The latter was able to describe his work in a more far-reaching and meaningful way. Work for him had a higher purpose.”
Some might argue that completing construction on the building is just a goal. And if you think about it that way, you’d be correct. But if you take it deeper, the stone mason isn’t just talking about finishing a project; he’s contributing to building a cathedral that will likely make a difference in millions of people’s lives for centuries to come. That’s the vision, and because the stone mason sees that vision so clearly, it offers meaning and purpose to his/her work. Which of the two stone masons do you believe is happier and more productive?
One reason most managers scoff at such ideals is that they think about values in terms of cafeteria posters and off-site staff retreats which they believe accomplish nothing but take people away from the real work of the organization. It’s regarded as a sideline, a distraction. (And in fairness, for some organizations it is).
Another way to think about values or vision is that they are central to our daily lives. They are inextricably woven into the fabric of every relationship we have – personal or professional. Imagine for a second what life at home would be like if you and your spouse or partner had conflicting values and sought different paths for your lives; you probably wouldn’t stay together long, and if you did, one or both of you would be resentful. Why do we believe our professional relationships are any different?
As much as some people try to convince themselves that crunching numbers, writing reports, and focusing on the details of the core business are challenging; by comparison, it’s the easy stuff. For leaders with the courage to engage and prevail in the pursuit of shared vision, mission, and values beyond the surface level, it will be they who will reap myriad rewards for their organizations, employees, and themselves. (And by the way, they’ll be happier people to boot!)