Trapped in a Values Oasis.

June 18, 2020. Filed under management 114

Learning to influence without authority is the keystone leadership skill to transition from early to mid career. It becomes an even more important skill later in your career as you need to partner effectively with your peers, executives and board members.

One of my favorite approaches to influencing without authority is “Model, document and share”, which focuses on enacting changes within your aegis of authority, while making sure it’s easy for others beyond your authority to adopt your changes. Having operated this way in senior management roles at several companies, I’ve come to believe it’s a uniquely impactful way to effect change.

I have also come to appreciate how using it in the wrong circumstances can create a misalignment of values within an organization, that causes a great deal of friction. I call those pockets of values misalignment a Values Oasis, and want to talk a bit about why they’re a problem, as well as how you can avoid creating them.

Leaving the oasis

A few years ago, I heard an apocryphal story about Sheryl Sandberg’s departure from Google to Facebook. In the story she apologizes to her team at Google because she’d sheltered them too much from Google’s politics and hadn’t prepared them to succeed once she stopped running interference. The story ends with her entire team struggling and eventually leaving after her departure. I don’t know if the story is true, but it’s an excellent summary of the Values Oasis trap, where a leader uses their personal capital to create a non-conforming environment within an wider organization.

An example that I’ve seen in many companies is the extent that teams factor community and inclusion work into performance reviews. Some teams rate performance on pure business metrics, others combine these factors additively, others discount business performance if certain community work minimums aren’t met. You can operate an organization with any of these approaches, but it’s risky for your team when you operate an organization that applies these standards inconsistently.

If your organization starts to emphasize community-building work within performance reviews, you may end up rewarding and promoting folks who would not get rewarded or promoted in another peer organization where that work isn’t similarly valued. At some point you will end up in a room where you have to compare the performance across both those organizations, and this is where the Values Oasis creates friction.

In a sufficiently influential role within your organization, you can ensure that your set of values is fairly accounted for in this sort of values melting pot, but what happens once you’re not in that room anymore? If your organization’s values have diverged considerably from those of the broader organization, then it’s likely to be messy.

Perpetuating a Values Oasis is betting your team’s long-term success on your own, and recognizing that ought to shift your ethical calculus. Even when you believe fervently that your values are better for your team, it’s not necessarily an altruistic act of leadership to adopt them if you can’t bring the broader organization along with you.

Ambiguity vs disagreement

When you come across a missing process, this is a great time to lead your organization forward by modeling an effective approach. For example, Julia Evans’ approach of writing brag documents is perfectly shaped to fill a gap that most organizations have. This is the right time to use a technique like “model, document and share.”

Conversely, when you encounter values or processes that you disagree with, modeling a different approach creates the seed of a Values Oasis. For example, if you disagree with how calibration weights community-building efforts within your organization, then modeling a different approach will either create a Values Oasis or demonstrate you failing to commit as a leader.

The rule of thumb here is to lead through ambiguity, and advocate through disagreement.

It’s important to diagnose your situation correctly, because when you get it wrong, it’ll still feel like you’re making progress, but it’s wholly dependent on you and it’s progress that is likely to come at the cost of undermining both you and your team within the broader organization. It can be extraordinarily frustrating to “disagree and commit” to a policy or value that goes against your personal values, but any worthwhile measure of successful leadership needs to consider your team’s success more highly than your own.

If you’re willing to sacrifice being a visible advocate to become an effective advocate, you can make durable, meaningful change over time by advocating through the disagreement and leading through the ambiguity to create an organization you believe in. Until you’re effective with both approaches, each oasis will dry up shortly after your departure.