Businesses in Engineering and Construction tend not to describe themselves as “values-driven”. More often, they identify and pride themselves on their ability to get things done in the typically tough circumstances in which they operate.

What value then, do values bring to businesses in engineering and construction?

The answer to this question lies in understanding:

  1. What Vision is
  2. How values relate to Vision; and
  3. How values are promulgated throughout an organisation.

First to Vision as the Why – or in other words the context – for a business enterprise. Establishing and holding a vision as a guide for the overall intent of the business, is a fundamental role of a business owner and her or his leadership team.

Business owners, focused as they remain on getting things done, are often reticent to engage their employees in conversations about their Vision. This reticence can also extend to conversations about values or “the way in which we expect people to get things done around here”.

Values in alignment with vision, clarify the identity of a business and serve as a rallying point for employees. Values align behaviour and provide context for the business strategy and supporting management system, particularly in circumstances where the size and complexity of an organisation renders persuasive conversations insufficient.

However, coming up with strong values — and sticking to them — requires active ownership and unwavering commitment. The key to establishing values lies in understanding that it is not a democratic process: the owners of the business vision have both the right and responsibility to set values in alignment with the vision, as a means of holding their organisation to account.

This might sound like heresy: of course, we all strive to be consultative and inclusive — surely this is what modern-day business demands?

The power underlying this process is the line in the sand that’s drawn for employees. Every time the subject of values is brought up, each and every employee is compelled to consider whether they are a good fit based on the extent to which they’re aligned with the values of the business.

Why is it up to the employee to make the call? As Shrek reveals in a key scene in his first movie, even ogres have onion-like layers. Our personal values are held deep within us, mostly kept hidden from others by the masks we don for our day-to-day interactions with the outside world.

A company with strong values is very appealing to new employees, especially when initial inquiries by prospective employees reveal leadership that actually ‘walks the talk’. Unfortunately, even the most rigorous recruitment processes have difficulty in identifying a candidate’s true values. Prospective employees may not be consciously aware of their own personal core values, which can make it difficult for them to self-assess whether an organisation is a good fit, and, conversely, difficult for an organisation to truly assess a candidate’s true fit with the company. This inevitably leads to misalignments for a values-driven business. Accordingly, leadership must be particularly sensitive to the fact that, when properly practiced, values create an environment where it becomes evident that some employees’ behaviour is at odds with the values of the business. Even if the employee makes a significant contribution to the performance of the business in other ways, it’s important for leaders to reinforce the importance of (and requirement to adhere to) the values of the business.

The feeling of cognitive dissonance created by a misalignment with the organisation’s values can be what ultimately drives the employee’s decision to move on. In the meantime, feelings can manifest themselves in dysfunctional behaviour such as disengagement, and the consequences of this behaviour on the wider business need to be carefully monitored and managed. Occasionally, the wider effects of the disruptive behaviour are such that nature can’t be left to take its course.

Consider the challenge of making a call to move an employee on who achieves consistent results but is prepared to ‘do what it takes’, including setting aside the business values, in the interests of getting the job done. Sacrificing performance for alignment with values is a hard call. It’s worth weighing up, though, the effects of avoiding the decision on the other employees who make up the rest of the business.

So as a business owner or leader and before 2023 really starts accelerating away, take some time to have a think about what you really stand for. Then ask yourself the question: Is your business fully aware of your values?

Adapted from “The Steel Ceiling: Achieving Sustainable Growth in Engineering and Construction” Wiley, 2023

Peter Wilkinson BE (Mech), MBA (AGSM) is the founder and director of SamWilko Advisory.