A Beacon in a Storm of Uncertainty

a beacon on a lighthouse in a storm
Danielle Dyer Photo

4 minutes

Organizational values can help leaders navigate times of turbulence.

“Your organization’s values are your organization’s breath,” said Sean R. Martin, associate professor of business administration at University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and faculty of the CUES CEO Institute

Martin kicked off the final general session of Knowledge & Networking November last Thursday with an anecdote about whitewater rafting. 

He recalled his first official paid job working for a whitewater rafting company in Flagstaff, Arizona. One guide’s words during a safety lesson with first-time rafters before embarking on a trip through the Grand Canyon has stuck with him over the years: 

“What do you think is going to happen when you fall out of the boat?” the guide asked the group. “Because you’re going to fall out of the boat at some point. And it’s going to be at a point that’s kind of scary. People don’t fall out of the boat when there aren’t any rapids. You fall out of the boat when it’s bumpy and when the water is turbulent.” 

Don’t Panic 

Martin asked Knowledge & Networking November attendees what they thought they should do in that situation. Attendees were able to participate in the conversation by responding in the event chat: 

  • Stay calm. 
  • Don’t panic. 
  • Legs up, head up. 
  • Swim! 
  • Yell for help. 
  • Feet downstream. 

“All of these sound like really good things to do,” Martin remarked. But “the No. 1 thing that the guides tell you to do … is breathe.

“The reason that’s so incredibly important is because the water in the Colorado River, even in the summer, is only between 40 and 45 degrees [Fahrenheit]. So, when you hit it, it’s like an ice bath,” he continued. When people fall into the water, the first thing they do is gasp—and then they focus on trying to swim or finding something to grab. “They don’t want to drown, but yet they’re holding their breath … and they start to feel like they’re suffocating, and they start to panic.”

The guides always say, “To stay alive and stay OK, all you have to do is keep breathing.” This calms your body down and helps you remember what’s important in the situation, Martin explained. You’re wearing a life preserver and a helmet, and there are other people in the raft that are going to help you. 

As in whitewater rafting, when you’re leading a credit union—through a crisis, major change or simply busy times—you need to pause to breathe. Don’t panic; take a moment to check in with your organizational values. Like breathing, those values are essential to survival. They keep you afloat in times of uncertainty. 

“After I breathe,” Martin added, “I can figure out which direction I'm going to swim.” 

Taking the time to consider those values provides clarity both to the decision-makers and to employees within the organization. “I'm going to make a better choice, a choice I'm going to be proud of later. A choice that's less biased,” he noted. It also means your team members will understand your decisions and be more likely to buy in—assuming they clearly understand and buy in to the values on which your choice was based. 

Communicating Values 

Historically, the way humans have communicated across generations is storytelling, said Martin. These are powerful tools for communication in the business world as well. 

“Organizations are story repositories,” he observed. “Organizations are like high schools—there’s stories about everybody!” Credit unions can take control of these stories to help instill their cores values across all levels of the organization. 

To illustrate, Martin outlined a field experiment he conducted with a large, rapidly growing tech company on how best to teach its organizational values to newcomers. The company gathered stories of both leaders and “followers”—front-line or lower-level employees—taking actions that were aligned with the company culture and values. They also gathered stories of leaders and employees not living out their organizational values. 

After sharing these stories with a group of new hires and tracking their actions/performance at the company over the following months, Martin found the stories about leaders were only effective in teaching new employees to recite their organizational values—“those stories had zero effect on encouraging values-aligned behaviors.” 

But those who heard stories about other entry-level employees did display changes in behavior. Stories about followers holding up their organizational values positively influenced participants’ behavior. Negative stories about lower-level employees negatively affected their fellow employees’ behavior. 

The conclusion? Communicate your organizational values in a way that relates to your employees’ own work. To teach your company values to baristas, you should share stories about baristas. “If you want to encourage me to align with the organizational values, it’s the stories about followers that put those values in use for most people and changes their behaviors.” 

Taking a breath to remember what’s essential and how best to share those values across all levels will guide your organization through any turbulence. cues icon

Danielle Dyer is an editor at CUES.

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