Two words immediately came to mind when people thought of James — honesty and quality. He told it like it was, not soft-soaping or saying what people wanted to hear. He also pushed people to deliver top quality. People valued James for his principles.

Values, like honesty and quality, are the attributes, concepts, ideals and principles that guide how we act and what we do. They are important because they communicate expectations for organizational behavior. When a leader’s values are out of sync with the organization’s culture or are demonstrated inconsistently, the leader undermines his or her credibility. Had James communicated the importance of quality but routinely allowed shoddy workmanship to slip through, he would be communicating a mixed message.

Leaders often experience an “aha” when we ask them to do a values alignment check. In this process we ask them to identify the values by which they live their lives. We then ask them to describe a situation that demonstrates how those values play out in their simple daily acts at work. For some, like Carol, the results affirm and validate demonstrated behaviors. She believed that everyone deserved to be treated respectfully. While she gave team members opportunities to participate in meetings, she insisted that people manage their language and tone. Others find eye-opening results from this exercise when they realize that their behaviors are not in sync with the values they espouse. For instance, Tom identified productivity as a value he stood for, but he acknowledged that there were times when he himself was unproductive and scattered. And for some, like Peter, it was hard to identify even one particular value that was being communicated to direct reports. Most leaders complete this activity and realize that they rarely articulate their values aloud to their employees.

What can you do? Look for people you know who “wear their values on their sleeves” and those who don’t. James and Carol are examples of leaders who do. Helen, however, is someone who doesn’t. While she claims she cares about her employees, she regularly berates her direct reports in front of others, and rarely attends any of the office celebrations. She is inflexible when her people ask to leave early for a family commitment.

What are your workplace values? Once you ask yourself that question, you will uncover evidence of your values. Start making a list. Identify specific situations in which you demonstrate those values. You may discover that you have some blank spaces next to some of your values. Jot down what you need to do more of to align your behaviors. Examine those situations and work on changing the behaviors which undermine your effectiveness.

Leaders model values – through their actions – and communicate and influence the workplace culture. Are you sending a clear message?