Corporate Culture: Why Values Aren’t Enough

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

Integrity. Innovation. Commitment. Humility. Teamwork. You’ve probably seen values like these on company website banners or framed on office walls—maybe even your company’s walls.  The powerful words are prominently displayed to make an impression on everyone who visits the site or walks through the door. These values are what a company stands for.

It’s a common practice for leaders to carefully select a group of principles to represent their companies and inspire their employees. They believe such values, sometimes outlined in mission and vision statements, will form the basis of a strong culture, and that culture will distinguish their organization from the competition.

That’s half correct. Culture indeed has the power to elevate a company to the top of its field.

But corporate culture isn’t defined by values displayed on the wall.

An organization’s culture is manifested in the way people behave every day.

Company values are only meaningful if the people who work there demonstrate them—all the time. And unless the actions and attitudes of employees reflect the “who we are” of a mission statement and the “where we’re going” of a vision statement, those carefully crafted descriptions are just words.

Brand leadership expert and author Denise Lee Yohn puts it this way: “You must develop an interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationship between what your organization does on the inside and how it is perceived and experienced on the outside.”

Noble as they may be, values aren’t enough to make this happen.

To build an exceptional reputation for your company, you need to operationalize the ideals it stands for. The key to doing this is defining and practicing the behaviors that will set your company apart.

Breaking it Down: Values vs. Behaviors

It’s certainly not wrong to establish values for your company; they’re an indication of the high standards you want your brand to reflect. But two things can limit their ability to shape your corporate culture:

  1. They’re broad concepts subject to interpretation
  2. They’re usually nouns that reflect an idea—not an action

Both characteristics make it hard for people to incorporate values into their daily work. In fact, a study featured in the MIT Sloan Management Review revealed no correlation between official values and corporate culture in the eyes of employees.

Values—What’s it to You?

If you ask five staff members for their definition of a value like “integrity,” you’re likely to get five different answers. One person may say that it means being honest. Someone else may believe it’s treating people fairly, while others may think it means living up to a personal code, and so on.

None of these answers are wrong. But the disparity shows that everyone in the group will be following a different drummer while trying to adhere to this value.

On the other hand, when you describe a concrete behavior to team members, they can easily understand how to perform it. The description would mean the same thing to everybody, and interpretation would be unnecessary.

If you want your corporate culture to reflect your organization’s image, don’t ask your people to follow abstract values. Instead, explain and teach the specific behaviors that will make your company stand out.

Behaviors—Action Words

Values and behaviors differ in another meaningful way.

Company values tend to be nouns that describe an idea—like “Innovation.”  But nouns don’t convey how the idea can be actualized. They offer no examples for employees to emulate or steps to follow.

Employee response to a value like “Innovation” would probably be:

“Okay!…But how do we do that?”

Unlike noun-based values, behaviors are expressed with verbs that describe an action. For instance:

  • Practice Blameless Problem-Solving
  • Assume Positive Intent
  • Take Ownership

When you tell employees what they are expected to do and how they’re supposed to do it, they have a clear path to follow.

And managers feel like they’re more effective when they promote behaviors instead of trying to drive values home.

As CultureWise Founder and CEO David Friedman explains, “Because they’re so action-oriented, behaviors are much easier to teach, coach, guide, and give people feedback about. It’s hard to give people feedback about a value.”

Keeping it Real—Accountability and Consistency

Accountability.

One of the most critical distinctions between values and behaviors is that values don’t elicit accountability. An employee can say, and even believe, that they’re living up to their company’s values. But unless they do something egregious, it’s hard to make them accountable for reflecting an abstract concept.

When people don’t have specific instructions and benchmarks to hit, it’s tough for them to progress. Values don’t provide them with the tools to achieve organizational goals.

Clearly defined behaviors are another story. They give employees and management the ability to easily detect if expectations are being met. For example, a broad value like “Quality” is open-ended. But if team members are provided with a definition of what quality looks like at their organization, they have a roadmap.

When employees are offered specific behaviors to follow, they know what they’re expected to do and how to be accountable for doing it.

Consistency

Values are strong words with vague parameters. A value like “Teamwork” is admirable. But it doesn’t offer clues about when and how to apply the concept. That lack of clarity is likely to translate into well-intentioned attempts to collaborate that often fall short.

The nondescript quality of “Teamwork” can also mean that people may not have it top of mind throughout their workday. They may think about it sometimes, but not all the time. And that’s a problem. Unless they’re making a consistent effort to support each other, they’re not living up to this value.

Things are different when a company provides clear guidelines for the behavior associated with teamwork versus asking people to live up to the concept of teamwork.

If employees are shown practical ways to link teamwork to everything they do with and for their coworkers, they’ll routinely apply this defined behavior. Ultimately, teamwork won’t just be a word; it will become second nature.  

Making a List of Behaviors

You may be thinking that it’s easier to develop a set of meaningful company values than trying to come up with a bunch of behaviors to define your workplace culture. Actually, the behaviors you’d want your team to follow are relatively simple to identify.

Think of questions you might already be tossing around with your management team about how to improve performance and meet goals. The answers to those questions will formulate the behaviors you want your people to do every day.

For instance, you may be asking:

How can we get people to be more organized?  The behavior that you could teach your team might be: Be process-driven.

Here are some more examples:

What will help reduce workplace “drama”? Focus on solutions instead of blame.

How can we improve customer service? Make every interaction count.

What will help our team work more effectively together? Get clear on expectations.

This exercise will help you develop a robust list of behaviors that will drive personal and organizational success. When the list is complete, the next step is to describe what it means to accomplish each of these behaviors and then teach them to your crew.

Can Company Values and Behaviors Coexist? 

What if you’ve already got a list of values in place, and you’ve been emphasizing them to your team for years. Are you just supposed to replace them with a list of behaviors? Is it possible for company values and behaviors to coincide?

The short answer is yes.

But don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you need to map your behaviors to your values.  

If you see the advantage of defining standard behaviors for your company, and already have a set of core values, you may be tempted to connect the dots. In other words, you may want to separate your behaviors into groups that correspond to specific values.

The problem with this idea is that you might be able to match a lot of the behaviors you created with your company values. But in many cases, there may not be a precise fit.

A constructive behavior like “Do it Right the First Time” could be essential to effective operations. But it might not line up under any of your core values like Honesty, Service, or Commitment.

And if you try to align behaviors just to fit your values, you’ll dilute the practical things you really want from your people. The values you show the world may not reflect all the behaviors that keep things running efficiently at your business.

So how do you get your staff to understand the difference between your core values and these new behaviors? Won’t that be confusing?

The best approach is to tell your team that these behaviors are a way to bring the values to life on a daily basis. What’s more, they offer practical direction for a broader scope of “boots on the ground” activity than the values do. They don’t cancel out the values; they augment them.

Operationalize Your Culture

At this point, you probably understand how a program of practical, actionable behaviors can help your team and company to improve. But implementing this kind of culture initiative may sound like a tall order for your busy management team. Where would you even start?

CultureWise is an excellent solution for many organizations. This turnkey system to operationalize culture offers a suite of tools that provide business leaders everything they need to take their companies to the next level of performance.

The wide array of CultureWise content includes:

  • A broad variety of carefully defined “behaviors” (called Fundamentals at CW)
  • Curriculum designed to effectively teach the behaviors
  • Rituals to reinforce the behaviors
  • A powerful app to easily deliver the content

When you’re ready to ask specific questions about how CultureWise can transform your company, reach out to have someone contact you so you can learn more.