Every day, coaches come up with grand visions and values for their programs but continuously fail to actualize them. The following article was inspired by a long message I received from a coaching friend, sports parent, and business consultant. It is meant to highlight the problematic nature of program values without follow-through.

When Values Fail to Become Behaviors

I’m a sports parent who’d like my son to have a great experience playing high school sports. While I would love him to experience success at the high school level, I know he probably won’t get a scholarship to play college basketball. However, what’s most important to me is that he grows as a person.

The team got a new head coach this year, and I was excited. He started the season by laying out the following four core values:

  1. Positive Attitude and Body Language
  2. Great Work Ethic
  3. Compete in Everything We Do
  4. Sacrifice

The coach seemed to have a clear vision for the type of program he wanted to run. He had clear standards and expectations for the players in the program.

Well, fast-forward three months, and my excitement has waned but probably not for the same reason as other parents. The season has become painful to watch but not because of challenges with playing time or losing games. It’s because very little of this vision has come to fruition. Don’t get me wrong; as painful as it is for me, I have no doubt that it’s even more painful for the coaches and players on the team.

Two of the team’s best players are the main violators of the core values. After nearly every turnover, they walk back on defense. In these moments, I see the new coach wanting to hold them accountable. He will turn to the bench to sub them out, but something inside pushes him to leave the players in.

While the coach seems to tolerate these unacceptable behaviors in every situation, he still has tried to address them with the team. Just this last weekend, they just had their third “team meeting” wherein the coach addressed these behavioral issues. However, it’s hard to believe anything will come of this meeting, as nothing has come of previous meetings.

Honestly, I feel bad for the new coach; he’s a great guy who is in a really tough situation. He tries to take a stand, but you can see the pressure to win weighing on him.

Why Values Are Dangerous

Obviously, I don’t believe values are dangerous, or the process of having them is dangerous. But what is dangerous is espousing those values, and then failing to consistently hold players to those standards. Even worse is when you selectively hold certain players accountable but not others.

If you asked other parents or the players, almost none of them remember the values that were communicated at the start of the season, which shows how little people listen, and how important it is to overcommunicate our values. At the end of the day, the focus of this team was on the results, not the values.  

I see this every day in the corporate world. One current client is a prime example. They spent all of 2019 working with an organizational development firm to improve their “culture”. Their plan was this:

  • Develop Organization Vision, Mission, and Values
  • Institute Employee Recognition Program
  • Implement Leadership Training

They ended up with catchy phrases, slogans, and buzzwords that got turned into wall posters in conference rooms, printed on t-shirts, and emblazoned on employee badges. They started throwing random pizza and ice cream parties to celebrate and recognize employees. Leaders were told to “think and act differently”, with no processes in place for them to use those new methodologies when they returned to their work environment.

In some open and honest conversations with several members of the leadership team, they discussed the ineffective changes going on in their program. I asked them for their definition of “culture”. They just pointed to all the corporate posters and recited their mission and values.

They asked me what I thought culture was, and I just said, “It’s what I observe of employees’ behaviors on a daily basis. It’s not what you tell me you are; it’s what I see you are.”

They quickly admitted the failures of early 2019 and confessed that the only positive change had come from small pockets of people who were already bought-in.

Implementing Real Change

So I shared this with them: If culture is nothing more than how people act, then we must work on changing their behaviors. And if we want their behaviors to be different, then we must change the processes they work with. And if we are going to change those processes, then we must change the way we monitor and evaluate those processes.

Thankfully, they started to realize the organizational development consultant had done nothing more than develop an advertising and marketing campaign. So, at the end of 2019, we worked to fundamentally change some of the processes that people were working with and develop new ones.

For example, one of their values was “people are our most valuable asset”. So, they implemented a new process wherein each unit had to measure important business performance on a daily basis. The leadership team committed to working with each unit every single morning to get an update from the unit on how they performed the day before. But in a twist, instead of the manager for each unit giving the update to the leadership team, we developed a rotation plan for each unit to have their floor-level employees deliver the daily update.

This process forced leadership to get out of their offices and conference rooms and interact with the front-line employees, which they had never previously done. It also provided a system for those front-line employees to be involved in running the day-to-day business and become valuable problem-solvers for the organization. It resulted in quickly growing pockets of employee engagement, which directly translated into helping the company improve its operational performance.

Now, “people are our most valuable asset” has taken on life within the organization. Their employee surveys saw a significant spike in positive responses about feeling involved and engaged. The fancy slogans never got those kinds of results!

Applying in Your Context

In the above examples, my friend articulated a concern that I know many players and parents had about some of my own programs for many years. It’s so much easier to talk about our values than it is to live by those values.

If a program wants their culture to be different and their values to be actualized, then they need to ask themselves, “How can we change the behaviors of coaches and players to align with these values?” The bottom line is it starts with changing their current processes or implementing new processes that drive the aligning behaviors.

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