Quick … what are your company’s values? Can you name them? If so, they probably sound a lot like these:

Honesty. Integrity. Ethical. Fun. Excellence. Innovation. Respect. People-focused. Transparent …

The ongoing list of cloned corporate values can be found in countless lobbies, boardrooms, and conference rooms throughout the land. These lofty, abstract values sound great, and we all expect them in our everyday dealings with each other.

Trouble is, they’re open to wide interpretation. What may mean one thing to an individual can have a vastly different interpretation by their manager or coworker.

It’s important to get those nebulous values defined into actions so everyone’s operating from the same set of standards and rules. And it’s especially so in a manufacturing environment, where deviation from expected behaviors can have real-life consequences for the safety of employees or even legal issues with customers receiving faulty products.

Values and Actions

What’s the difference between values and behaviors/actions? Values are abstract words that may include behaviors. They’re the type of words listed above. But behaviors are specific actions that define the value — they’re clear, concrete expectations for how we’re all to behave with our coworkers and customers alike.

There’s real danger in not getting behavioral expectations clearly communicated at all levels of the company. Otherwise, line workers can easily justify deviation from the norm—especially if they don’t hear expectations clearly communicated from leaders.

During busy or stressful times, some execs and exec teams may resort to expediency to get things done and can have real difficulty aligning their own actions with that utopian view of how they expect the rest of the people in the organization to behave. But that sets precedent for others to do the same.

Worse yet, some leaders develop an entitled mindset resulting in “do as I say, not as I do” misguided justifications that cause their credibility with staff and customers to crumble like a house of cards. Witness the examples of the leaders of Uber, Wells Fargo, Arconic, Volkswagen and Toshiba, just to name a few.

What happens when things slip

Misalignment between “say” and “do” isn’t always as blatant as those examples, though. In fact, it doesn’t usually happen in one fell swoop. At most companies, we see that the alignment problem has developed over time — beginning as a slow, barely noticeable trickle.

Leaders are always under scrutiny. Every word that comes out of their mouths is parsed, interpreted, and measured against past statements and current actions. Too often, leaders fail to understand that they’re always “on stage.” Even facial expressions, body language, or their own statements repurposed by others can deliver unintended messages.

The moment leaders don’t live up to their stated values, no matter how small a breach, gives permission for others to let things slide.

The culture starts slipping in countless little ways. Pretty soon, there’s a widening gap between the way things are done, and the way things ought to be. The brand loses value. And customers notice pretty quickly, too.

I once met with two leaders who had purchased a company and decided they had a brand problem, so they hired us. As we talked, they shared that they needed to replace most of their staff because they just “didn’t get it” and didn’t want to change. I asked about the framed vision, mission and values on the wall behind them. “Oh, those?” the CEO said. “I didn’t even know they were there…they were put together by the last owner.”

It quickly became apparent that they didn’t have a brand problem, but rather, a culture problem because they hadn’t defined their expectations, and clearly weren’t providing an example. I told them so. They recognized it, owned it, defined expectations, reshaped their culture and turned things around (without turning over their staff). Today, they’re a model of proactive communication around desired actions.

9 steps to turning it around

So, what are we to do? None of us can be perfect all the time. They key is to defining the behaviors you want, and then integrating them into your operation. I recently had the opportunity through my TEC group to hear David Friedman, CEO of High Performing Culture, walk though his steps to getting it done. Here’s his take:

1. Define the behaviors you want to compose your culture — You may come up with as many as 20 or 30 of them, and that’s OK. Ask yourself and your team things like:

– What really makes us happy?

– Why can’t they do it like Bob does?

– Why don’t they do it this way?

– What really pisses us off?

Turn all of these into desired behaviors.

2. Create rituals that will ensure the behaviors become habits — This is tough, because it requires a lot of energy and willpower to change. So integrate them into daily doings. Talk about them in every meeting, involve others in sharing their experiences and stories about particular behaviors, etc.

3. Select the right people — Ask behavioral, open ended questions regarding your desired actions when interviewing new candidates. Ask for examples.

4. Integrate new hires into the culture immediately — You only have one chance at a great first impression, right? Make it count. It’ll last the rest of their career with you.

5. Make your culture visible — Put up signs and phrases everywhere. It demonstrates your commitment and provides a common language around desired actions.

6. Coach people to teach and reinforce the culture — Whenever you’re engaged with staff, relate the situation back to one of your desired actions and use the same language to reinforce the good behavior.

7. Give your managers the right tools — Provide desired language, definitions, tutorials, conversation starters,“how-to” guides and real, concrete ways to help them integrate discussing the actions into their everyday managing and coaching.

8. Set the example — Remember, as discussed earlier: You’re always on stage, whether you realize it or not. Staff will mirror what they see.

9. Create accountability — Find a way to measure things. Rank the behaviors’ importance for each position in the company and develop a scoring matrix that can be used in performance reviews. Encourage employees to positively reinforce desirable actions and to non-threateningly point out those that need adjustment — at all levels. It’s the only way we learn.

Above all, remember that you’ll need constant communication. Talking with people at all levels of the organization. Repeating and repeating key messages, again and again. Checking and rechecking for understanding. Building trusting, meaningful relationships. Giving them permission to hold their leaders accountable to agreed-upon values.

That way, when you slide or have an off day (and we all do), your team will have your back to help your effort. Or maybe even have the courage to hold you to your own standards.

Think your organization might be out of alignment? Take our Alignment Test and find out.