By Stephen Young

Explaining project

Unconscious bias is manifested through a variety of dimensions. The most visible are race, gender, culture and generation, and other factors that influence who gets hired, developed, and promoted within an organization. The goal is to create a culture and environment that enables these diverse groups to perform to their fullest. There are obstacles, however, that get in the way.

Who is responsible for ameliorating these obstacles that inhibit people’s performance based on these differences? There tend to be two forces at play—an organization’s culture and leadership, and the individual who, against all odds, learns to circumvent these obstacles.

The focus of this article is solely on the latter, enabling individuals to circumvent obstacles through the use of Individual Value Protocols.

Individual Value Protocols are similar to Corporate Operating Principals. Corporate operating principals are a set of cultural expectations and behaviors that establish the standards required for working within an organization. They are intended to make a business more productive, raise performance standards, and provide excellent service to customers and clients.

Corporate operating principals have become a staple within businesses across all industries. In essence, they tell employees you are expected to embrace these practices in order to be a valued member of the corporate community. They are prominently displayed throughout a company’s corridors, using a range of monikers such as; Corporate Value Statement, Operating Principals, Mission Statement, “Who We Are,” and others. Those who comply are valued and viewed with respect.

Businesses can be quite creative in the formatting used to convey their statements. They can be as crisp as a simple list of single word declarations, such as these:

  • Excellence
  • Quality
  • Consistency
  • Teamwork

Or catchy platitudes, like these:

  • Customer First
  • Respect for the Individual
  • Integrity Above All

Whatever form they take, corporate values serve a critical purpose. They strive to define a corporate culture and identify the behaviors required to support it. Value statements establish what a business requires from its employees to fulfill the corporate cultural ethic.

If establishing operating principals for a business is a worthy process, shouldn’t this extend to each of us as individuals, as well? Your perception as a high-potential performer is raised when you advocate personal high-performance standards that build upon those already in place at your company. Narrowing the scope right down to your individual and team expectations opens the doors to neutralize unconscious bias and enables everyone to perform to their highest potential.

Individual value protocols are the set of behaviors that you create, which define your personal values combined with effective strategies (protocols), that help the business operate more productively and make you a more effective colleague and leader. They are standards that don’t change based on changing conditions or circumstances. Just as companies create operating principals that do not deviate, so too, should each of us introduce value protocols for ourselves and our respective teams.

When you introduce these value protocols into your respective team, colleagues and bosses will hold you and your contributions in higher regard. Taking on this leadership role can be transformative in the ways you circumvent organizational obstacles.

Value protocols differ from personal values in that personal values represent the things you subscribe to and believe in the ways you manage your life, whereas, individual value protocols represent a set of professional procedures we commit to that may have no relation to your personal views. They seek to create an environment where everyone can perform to his or her highest potential. They are designed to provide effective strategies that make a business operate more productively and make you a more effective colleague and leader.

Value protocols are not effective if they remain cerebral and kept to yourself. You must present them to those with whom you work and gain their agreement on the benefit of making them an integral part of how you collaborate as a team.

The following are a few examples of recommended value protocols, upon which you can build, that can transform the thought process and behavior of an entire team. It is incumbent upon you to decide to take these in the form presented here or adapt them to align with your professional values.

Individual Value Protocols:

  • Every Criticism Must Include a Recommendation
  • Start with “Yes”
  • Don’t Wait: Initiate

Let’s take a closer look at what they mean and how to apply them.


Whining, complaining, or criticizing are routine sentiments expressed in meetings. Frankly, these are as common as a yawn and all too often get the same response—nothing. They generate awareness, but no action is taken. Recognizing that a problem exists or criticizing the status quo should never be considered good enough. This first value protocol places responsibility upon anyone who offers a criticism to include a recommended solution.

Let’s look at some examples.

I was sharing some of our value protocol concepts with the CEO of major technology company. He asked me to sit in on one of his upcoming staff meetings and present the concepts to his executive team. Following that presentation, the discussion shifted to a different area of leadership development. One executive complained that he had not been made aware of an organizational change and spent about a full minute talking about the frequency with which information is gained through back channels and even from third parties, such as news media. He ended his mini-tantrum by shaking his head in disgust.

Two of his colleagues smiled at one another and virtually simultaneously, said, “Value protocol #1.” The rest of the team laughed and nodded in agreement.

The executive smiled, thought for a moment, and said, “Ok, how about this. I think we could fix this problem if we had a section on our internal website where all new information was posted in real time. People could check regularly and have access to the most current information.”

Group of multi ethnic people during business meeting

The group agreed, a change was ultimately made, and the problem no longer exists as a routine characteristic of their business culture. In this case, his suggestion was a good one, and was insightful and incorporated into the business process.

Important note: This value protocol doesn’t require someone’s solution to be “Academy Award” worthy. It does not require that you have the best solution. It is purely intended to optimize the way people think by requiring them to be constructive and not merely critical.

I don’t want to be naive or blind to the occasional need for unabashed venting. There are certainly times when opening the sliding door, stepping out on the balcony, closing it firmly behind you, and yelling at the top of your lungs is an important, and even necessary, emotional release. Those, however, should be few and far between!

There are no doctors to prescribe a cure for business problems. Both the diagnoses and treatments must come from within. This value protocol provides the means to do just that.

There is a critical connection here to diversity and inclusion. When you are the one enforcing the practice that engineers solutions to business problems, your personal stock rises significantly in the eyes of others. This action becomes a highly visible leadership attribute that clearly demonstrates your value to the organization.


This value protocol goes to the epicenter of the human psyche. It is an axiom and perhaps even too platitudinous to say that we all want to feel validated. After one has offered an idea, there is that brief moment of anticipation regarding how it will be received. Will they like it, be indifferent, or simply hate it? Clearly, we all would like our ideas to be thought of as brilliant and indispensable.

In any meeting or conversation where there are differences of opinion, those differences are often interpreted as adversarial. In fact, there is almost a silent “no” before a remark that challenges someone’s statement.

Our natural instinct causes us to become defensive and push back. To boost people’s receptivity to what you have to offer, simply begin with the word, “Yes,” and briefly acknowledge some level appreciation for the value in their remark.

Asian Businesswoman Leading Meeting At Boardroom Table

Always provide a value comment about anything someone says or does. You might say it’s too difficult or pretentious to tell someone that there’s value in a statement when you disagree with their idea. Let’s shift your thinking—you can almost always find some value in any idea.

Here’s a fun example to illustrate how this can always be accomplished.

I was asked how I would respond with a “yes” to the following suggestion: “All people who have reached the age of 50 should be forced to retire, and the company should use that allocation to hire new, young talent.”

Here is one possible response:

“Yes, I can clearly see your thinking. Fresh new ideas always invigorate any organization. New talent fresh off the campus assures the latest academic perspectives and broadens our views. There are some concerns, however, with that approach. They are…” and here’s where you might list all the reasons you feel that idea would not be effective.

The approach is effective because when people make a suggestion and someone responds to it, they are primarily listening to determine whether the response supports or rejects their idea. If they identify rejection, they are listening to offer a rebuttal. On the other hand, if they perceive agreement, they begin to listen for understanding.

This process has a powerful D&I impact. When you establish a practice of looking for value in everyone’s contributions, you begin to view their thoughts and opinions with more respect.


Whenever there is a problem, be the one to identify it and bring it to the table for resolution.

Disharmony, disagreement, and dissent abound in the normal course of business. More often than not, people tend to avoid conflict and confrontation. It’s easier to say, “I love the emperor’s new clothes,” than be the one to call out his full-frontal nudity.

Don’t sit safely blending into the camouflage. Standing up to authority certainly has its risks and is likely the reason avoidance is often a preferred choice, but no one has ever achieved leadership greatness by going with the flow or becoming a lemming. You’ll be safe but never admired—no risk, no reward.

Here are some guidelines for orchestrating when and how to initiate:

Start by identifying whether the issue is major, or relatively unimportant. Never waste time on issues that are unimportant, unless they are easy to capture as low hanging fruit. If calling out a problem is likely to gain group support and is worthy, even if it isn’t critical to the business, take advantage of that opportunity to establish yourself as a leader who recognizes the need for change and takes action.

On the other hand, if calling out a problem will have little benefit and also has a high probability of pushback, it might be advisable to just let it go.

If calling out an issue has the potential of making notable change, anticipate the objections and risks and determine how to best present a solution. This is a fundamental process trial lawyers use in presenting cases. No lawyer ever asks a question of a witness for which they don’t already know the answer.

I’m not suggesting a hot eviscerating courtroom style for your staff meetings, but it is a line of thinking that can prepare you for initiating constructive confrontation. Anticipate potential objections and prepare a convincing line of logic to support your position.

Great leaders reach well beyond mere task completion and are driven by a clear vision of the outcome they want to achieve. Carefully shaping our messages in the best ways possible, can improve outcomes and enable us to become the evolved and effective leaders we want to be.

Value protocols should be shared with all those with whom you work. More important, create your own. As you think about your work process, identify those procedures that will add value to the business culture and the colleagues with whom you work.

Establishing equitable value protocols is a critical cornerstone for effectively managing unconscious bias in the workplace and optimizing performance for everyone within that organization. Being a beacon of positive organizational change, who also demonstrates inclusion, can set you apart as the model of leadership others aspire to and help vanquish unconscious bias.

Stephen Young

Stephen Young

Stephen Young is the Senior Partner of Insight Education Systems, a management consulting firm specializing in leadership and organizational development services. As a recognized leader and foremost expert in this field, Mr. Young frequently consults with senior executives and management teams of Fortune 500 companies.