Sustaining In Tough Economic Times

In 2008 the United States experienced an economic meltdown.  Some say it is now a full blown recession and others claim indications of a recovery.  Either way, there is no money.

When there is no money, salaries and benefits remain stagnant, training budgets shrink and equipment we have taken for granted is no longer affordable.  Anyone looking to compensation and benefits for work fulfillment is in serious trouble.

So if there is no money, what do we look to for fulfillment in our work?  What kind of environment can leadership create that will sustain the organization, its people and the integrity of both through difficult economic times?

The answer lies in values, specifically values that have proven to sustain over time.  The answer lies in the attitude with which we view our work and public service.  In difficult economic times, we are forced to look inward and ask, “Why?”  Why am I doing this?  If it isn’t for the money (which it certainly isn’t right now) why do I choose to work to serve others?

Certain values are universal.  We know them to be because enough people in enough places over enough time have stated, written and lived them to be.  All kinds of values fall into the category of universally accepted values.  The list includes things like trustworthiness, respect, fairness, responsibility, caring, mutuality and generativity to name a few.  These are values that have been stated in various ways by various cultures over various times.

There is a different set of values as well.  Kind of a subset of these universal values, but not quite.  The different set of values holds a characteristic that the universal values may or may not hold — they get people jazzed up to respond to leadership.

When leadership and these values that sustain meet, wonderful things happen.  Values that create vitality and sustain an organization include:

  • Regeneration – Investment in people for the greater good
  • Integrity – Aligning with something greater than ourselves
  • Humility – The desire to learn and serve
  • Optimism – A confident and realistic outlook of the best for the future
  • Receptivity – Making time and room for people
  • Responsibility – The commitment to seek a high lievel of excellence

How these made the list?  They are not stated values, they are recognized values with a track record of creating an environment that shows energy and growth.  Growth both in character and effectiveness.  These are values that have helped governments overcome corruption, they have helped organizations grow and stay centered and they have helped individuals grow in their professional life.

Why we work will always trump what we work for, but this comes with a caveat.  The caveat is this, eventually the economic situation will turn around.  It always does.  Organizations wishing to keep valued employees must eventually make up for lost economic time.

Reinforcing Desired Values

If you are interested in effective vibrant orgaizational values, you need to know that it is not enough to just say, “These are our values.”  Values are not picked like apples off a tree, they are lived then recognized.

Start by listening to the stories you hear in your organization.  What are your people talking about?  What are they fond of?  What are they not so fond of?  From these stories you will start to recognize your values.

If you are not seeing vitality, ask yoursel and your employees what needs to change in ourselves as individuals and as an organization that will bring vitality.  Always start with behaviors.  This can be a humbling process, but the benefits far outweigh the initial discomfort of honest introspection.

Steps that can help you set a positive attitude for your organization include Identifying – Telling – Living your values.

We identify values through listening and introspection (see above).

Once identified, it is important to tell them both in writing and in word.  Telling reinforces.  Research shows that people respond to what words are put before them both in writing and in word.  Speak your values and write your values.

It is not enough to simply speak and write values.  We must also live them.  Most communication is non-verbal and the people who work in your organization are intelligent perceptive people.  They will spot a disconnect between actions and values in a heartbeat.  You are not fooling anyone.  Be prepared to fully live any value important enough to identify and tell.  Commit to your values.

Processes are important for reinforcing values.  Processes provide a fair mechanism for evaluating behaviors.  Many professional organizations have identified effective processes for reinforcing values.  Do some research and find what works best for your organization.

A word of caution, a little process goes a long way.  Nothing will oppress and burden people more than layers of bureaucracy and rules.

Processes should serve people, not the other way around.  Use process to keep the values in front of people.

Patience is essential.  Eventually people will disappoint us and we will disappoint them.  That is human nature.  Behaviors you see today are not the same as you will see tomorrow.

Growth and vitality are measured over long periods of time.  It may be tempting to react situationally.  When this temptation comes, remember that you put a lot of work and effort and went through a fair amount of pain to identify your values.  Honor them by sticking to them.

Develop a culture of apology and forgiveness.  A lot of these go a long way.

The Problem With Values

If values are not supported by a firm foundation and a system of accountability, they become subjective.  We tend to view ourselves morally in a more positive light than we view others.  This is human nature.

A solid foundation is vital.  We cannot self-evalute values so they must be held to a “higher science.”  Virtue serves this purpose.

Cardinal virtues, theological virtues, classical virtues, we can name many different virtues.  Naming is not enough. We must identify virtues.  Virtues make their subject good.  Virtue is the foundation of values.

We grow through virtuous habit. Virtue does this, it moves us from one state of character and conduct to another higher state of character and conduct.

A life that is not growing habitually is a life that lacks virtue.  Without virtue, values are meaningless.  What growth do you and others see in your life?


Integrity brings life to values.

We hold many inerests and loyalties in our lives.  In our culture the prevailing  ethic is to compartmentalize our interests and loyalties.  We devote an amount of time and money to a loyalty or interest then move on to the next.  We call the first one we give our time and money to our priority, but it is not really a priority, it is just first in line.

This compartmentalization is what leads to a dual life.  For example, a husband and father can claim family first, spend several hours on a wonderful afternoon with his wife and children then go out at night and carouse with his friends in all kinds of ways that dishonor his wife and children, especially his daughter.  In the man’s mind he has served both needs.

Life doesn’t work that way.  Integrity is the thing that makes our integral parts whole.  When all aspects of our lives work together to serve a greater good, we are acting with integrity.

What is that greater good?  No one but yourself can tell you what it is.  You have to think about it and consider, “Do I have something in my life that serves all my interests together?”

Seek a greater good.  The affect can never be greater than the cause.