CORE VALUES: Crucial but Confused
If We Have Them, We Need To Live Them
There is hardly an organizational development or leadership guru today who does not stress the fundamental role of clear values and a clear understanding of mission and purpose in successful organizations. To quote just one of many books on the subject, Leadership Is an Art:
Shared ideals, shared ideas, shared goals, shared respect, a sense of integrity, a sense of quality, a sense of advocacy . . . must be explicit. . . . We must work to maintain these values. Successful corporations tend to become institutions. Institutions foster bureaucracy, the most superficial and fatuous of all relationships. Bureaucracy can level our gifts and our competence. Tribal elders must insistently work at the process of corporate renewal. They must preserve and revitalize the values of the tribe. They nourish a scrutiny of corporate values that eradicates bureaucracy and sustains the individual. Renewal comes through genuine service to others. It cannot come about through a process of mere self-perpetuation. Renewal is an outward orientation of service, rather than an inward orientation of maintenance.
Core Values Matter
Senior officers uniformly asserted the importance of core values as the qualities and attributes that define a corps or a corporation and the way each conducts its business. They cited the Marines (Honor, Courage and Commitment), West Point (Duty, Honor, County) and Motorola (The Motorola Way) as values-based organizations.
Mid-level and junior officers familiar with the concept of core values agreed about their importance for a number of reasons:
- Meaningful core values build cohesion.
- Core values infuse work with meaning that transcends the mundane.
- Core values attract recruits who already embody them.
- In large and/or mobile organizations, core values increase efficiency because employees within the organization who do not know each other can make certain assumptions about one another based on shared values.
- Core values infuse and reflect the spirit of an organization.
No Agreement on What the Values Are
FSOs did not agree on whether their institution has core values or if it does, what they are; there were pronounced differences among senior, mid-level, and junior officers on this issue. All but two senior officers interviewed believe the Foreign Service has core values; however, this group was split fifty-fifty on whether the Department of State has them. Close to half of mid-level and junior officers were unsure whether State or the Foreign Service has core values. Only one person thought our evaluation system reflected core values, suggesting that perhaps they were embodied in the precepts.
Appendix I contains a consolidated list of the core values identified by respondents. Agreement on values declines as seniority declines. Of those who believe core values exist, all agreed that they are not articulated but rather that they are absorbed by osmosis or by example. Senior and junior officers identified values that are positive; a substantial number of mid-level officers identified values that are negative.
The list of ascribed values betrays confusion about the definition of the word value. Whatever the definition, however, twenty out of forty-eight of mid-level officers interviewed believe neither State nor the Foreign Service has core values. Among those who believe core values exist, many of the core values cited are negative:
Look out for yourself, no one else will;
Dont rock the boat;
Rank has privilege but not accountability; and
Everything is negotiable.
The core values most cited by Junior Officers were hard work, equal opportunity employment (EEO) or fairness, and teamwork in that order.
A single mid-level officer pointed out that in fact the Department of State does have formal core values; they have been published on page seven of the Department of State Strategic Plan (See Appendix II). Compare this list with the list in Appendix I and draw your own conclusions. The list of reasons junior officers came into the Service (Appendix III) this year offers further insights. Notice in particular that eleven junior officers joined to serve their country and only four junior officers listed service as a Foreign Service core value after initial training.
To return to the point made earlier about the need for better and more systematic communication with the troops, it appears that the Strategic Plan core values list was not arrived at through a process that involved significant employee buy-in and has not been incorporated as a meaningful component of our corporate culture. Given that virtually no one believed such a list existed, it is clear that, thus far, no effort has been made to relate these values to daily work and life at the Department of State. The discrepancy between ascribed values and observed behavior was a source of harsh criticism from many officers. As someone said, What people say and what I see do not match.
A number of officers voiced the following sentiment in different ways: Every organization has a distinct culture that shapes its work environment, and the most successful ones inculcate a shared vision and well-defined common institutional values. If this is true, the Foreign Service and the Department of State appear to be values challenged.
A few people consider cynicism a serious cultural issue and symptomatic of a breakdown of core values. Most officers acknowledged that proximity to power politics breeds a certain amount of cynicism and thats OK, even healthy in our business. (As one noted, We are not playing in Goldilocks sandbox.) On the other hand, unrelieved cynicism becomes corrosive, and the perception of this troubles some observers.
One senior official believes that the prospect of ambassadorships for FSOs damages senior Service leadership. In this persons view, appointments for career officers should be capped at deputy chief of mission (DCM). Once officers accept an ambassadorship, they should have to resign from the Service and play only in the political process.
Another official believes that Foreign Service cynicism is but a mask for the idealism underneath. In the wake of Foreign Service downsizing, speculated another, cynicism is a rational defense to preempt being hurt by an institution one no longer trusts do to the right thing. Cynicism is passed on to new employees constantly within the first few weeks of A-100 for junior officers, not to mention the more sustained doses younger mid-level officers receive at every turn. Based on junior officer comments, mentors need to keep their own disappointments to themselves and inspire younger officers to feel they can contribute and help forge a brighter future for the Foreign Service and the country it serves. They want to feel inspired and needed, not like fools for having joined.
Draw on Idealism
A rich vein of idealism still runs through the Foreign Service; we need to draw on it and reawaken its spirit by engaging especially younger officers in the challenge of long-term institutional renewal. The Foreign Service Oral History Project would like to serve as a resource in this regard. As a depository of institutional history and folklore, it is ready to share its documentation of Foreign Service unsung heroes, men and women who dared, who took initiative, who led and who made a difference.
The project believes it could help respond to the needs of officers who have expressed a desire for more than a technical orientation to their new profession. Without ignoring the warts, or playing Pollyanna, the project would like to expose new officers to more diplomatic and foreign policy history: Officers need to see themselves as inheritors of a diplomatic tradition of noble (not to be confused with elite) proportions. A number of junior officers expressed a desire for just such content in A-100. A number of junior officers professed no knowledge of foreign policy or diplomatic history, and advocated a quick course in the topic based on books or a reading list to be provided in advance to new recruits. Officers need to be connected with the best of the Services commendable history and be challenged to help prepare it to meet the future.
FSOs care deeply about their country and its role in the world. Self-interest aside, all expressed genuine concern that U.S. foreign policy irrespective of administration can only be as strong as its foreign affairs and diplomatic institutional infrastructure. Senior officers share a passionate belief in the value of diplomacy in forging a better world, and younger officers want to feel the same. But to do this, they need a better understanding of what the diplomatic profession entails and what it takes to be a good diplomat in the twenty-first century.
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