The link between values-based leadership and your morale

Recent research with over 5,000 employees shows that so-called values-based leadership is simply more window dressing and hype without the presence of one thing. There’s a lot of good talk and zillions of words written about the importance and benefit of a leader who demonstrates certain core cards1values in their everyday actions and attitudes. But my recent analysis of how values get enmeshed into our daily work lives, especially our morale–how we feel about conditions affecting us–reveals several key points.

The research is based on just over 5,000 employees working at different levels and responsibilities within a national organization. The analysis comes from applying a variety of statistical tests including looking at correlations between measures, seeing what happens when controlling for certain values, and applying some predictive modelling. But enough of that. Here’s what I found:

The greatest impact on employee morale comes from a demonstration of values from immediate supervisors, not senior leaders that employees have little directly to do with. The values tested are the common ones of honesty, integrity, accountability, compassion, and respect. Those five values have only a moderate correlation to employee morale when exercised by senior leaders, but have a high correlation to morale when evidenced in the behaviour of immediate supervisors. That’s no big surprise. Employees generally trust and believe in their immediate supervisors more than those living in the stratosphere of senior leadership.

But here’s the news. All five of those values, while strongly interconnected, are very strongly linked to something else–fairness. Unless a supervisor is also fair in how they treat employees, including consistency in action, open communications, and offering clear and do-able responsibilities, all five of those values are for nought. So, you can’t have a leader/supervisor who is honest, accountable, shows integrity, compassion, and is respectful unless they are also fair.

Fairness (do you think this is a “value”?) is not only the glue that binds values, it is also the attribute that is more strongly correlated to employee morale than any of the five values. Without it, employee morale drops, leading to a sense of feeling devalued and diminished, with a strong impact on emotional and physical health, plus workplace performance.

There’s much discussion about the importance of integrity in today’s leaders (supervisors and managers). However the research results, at least with this large group, shows that integrity plays no greater role in employee morale than any of the other values. The only place it shows up as a big deal is when its impact is controlled for (withheld) from the relationship between honesty and accountability. As you likely know, honesty and accountability are very strongly correlated. But remove integrity, and that correlation becomes at best a weak to moderate one.

So, without the constant and genuine overlay of fairness, without fairness being woven into every supervisor, manager, and leader’s actions, there is no “values-based leadership.” The giant fly in the soothing ointment of values-based-leadership is that in many cases, in many organizations, “fairness” in how decisions are made and in how leaders and others behave is in the danger zone. In part, it is because how we define “fair” is very situational and contextual, based on employee demographics, gender, ethnicity, expectations, and other factors. But it is also the result of how accountable our managers and leaders are for their actions.

So, what do you think and what is your experience? Do you believe certain values are more important than others? Can you be a values-based leader and be only lukewarm fair? And how much of employee demoralization and dehumanization is caused by values-based leadership becoming more a marketing brand than reality?