It’s all about the behaviors.

Integrity. Innovation. Commitment. Teamwork. You’ve probably seen core 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 the company stands for.

Business leaders believe these carefully selected principles will represent their organizations and inspire their employees. Many are also convinced that their core values, sometimes outlined in mission and vision statements, will generate a strong culture that will distinguish their business from the competition.

That’s partly correct. Workplace culture indeed has the power to elevate a company to the top of its field—but it isn’t defined by values displayed on a wall.

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

A company’s core values are only meaningful if the people who work there demonstrate them—all the time. And unless the staff’s actions and attitudes 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.

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

The Difference Between Core Values And Behaviors

It’s certainly not wrong to establish company values; they indicate the high standards you want your brand to reflect.

But two things can limit their ability to shape your workplace culture:

  1. Values are broad concepts subject to interpretation
  2. Values are usually nouns that reflect an idea—not an action

Both characteristics make it hard for people to incorporate a company’s core 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 employees’ eyes.

 People Interpret Values Many Ways

If you ask five staff members for their definition of a value like “integrity,” you will likely get five different answers. For example, one person may say that it means being honest. Someone else might believe it’s treating people with respect, 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 follow a different drummer while trying to adhere to this core 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 personal interpretation would be unnecessary.

So instead of asking your people to follow abstract concepts, explain and teach specific behaviors that will allow your company to stand out.

CEO Panel Discussion

Behaviors Are Action Words

Values and behaviors differ in another meaningful way:

Company values tend to be nouns that describe an idea but don’t convey how to actualize it.  Accordingly, employees may appreciate an organization’s core value and want to live up to it—but don’t know precisely how.

Conversely, unlike noun-based values, behaviors are expressed with verbs that describe an action. Consider the following examples of company values versus behaviors with descriptions:

  • Core Value: QUALITY
  • Behavior: Make Quality Personal

Demonstrate a passion for excellence and take pride in the quality of everything you touch and everything you do. Have a healthy dislike for mediocrity. Good is not good enough. Always ask yourself, “Is this my best work?”

  • Core Value: INTEGRITY
  • Behavior: Act with Integrity

Demonstrate an unwavering commitment to doing the right thing in every action you take and in every decision you make, especially when no one’s looking. Always tell the truth, no matter the consequences. If you make a mistake, own up to it, apologize, and make it right.

  • Core Value: TEAMWORK
  • Behavior: Think Team First

It’s not about you. Don’t let your ego or personal agenda get in the way of doing what’s best for the team. Be there for each other and be willing to step into another role or help a coworker when that’s what’s required for success. Help each other to succeed.

Additionally, some behaviors don’t naturally tie in with core values but should be integrated into an organization’s culture to ensure success. For instance, you may want your employees to consistently:

  • Get Clear on Expectations

Create clarity and avoid misunderstandings by discussing expectations upfront. Set expectations for others and ask when you’re not clear on what they expect of you. End all meetings with clarity about action items, responsibilities, and due dates.

  • Look Ahead and Anticipate

Solve problems before they happen by anticipating future issues, planning for contingencies, and addressing them in advance. Work with appropriate lead times. Preventing issues is always better than fixing them.

  • Practice Blameless Problem-solving

Demonstrate a relentless solution focus, rather than pointing fingers or dwelling on problems. Identify lessons learned and use those lessons to improve ourselves and our processes so we don’t make the same mistake twice. Get smarter with every mistake. Learn from every experience.

When you tell employees what they are expected to do and describe how they’re supposed to do it, they have a clear path to follow. And managers are more effective when they promote coachable behaviors instead of trying to drive the company’s core values home.

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

Keeping It Real—Accountability And Consistency

Behaviors provide leaders with the means to help their employees achieve goals in two ways:

  • Accountability
  • Consistency

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One critical distinction between values and behaviors is that core values don’t evoke accountability. Employees 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. Core values don’t provide staff with the tools to achieve organizational goals.

Clearly defined behaviors are another story. They enable employees and management to detect whether expectations are being met. For example, an indeterminate value like “Service” is open-ended. But if leaders provide team members with a definition of what exemplary service looks like in 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.


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

The nondescript quality of “Teamwork” can also mean that people think about it sometimes, but not always. And that’s a problem. Unless they understand how to make a consistent effort to support each other, they’re not living up to this core 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.

Establishing The Right Behaviors For Your Culture

Many leaders may find it less challenging to develop a set of meaningful company values than to come up with a list of behaviors to define their workplace culture. But the behaviors they would want their team to follow are relatively simple to identify.

David Friedman suggests considering the questions your leadership team regularly discusses regarding improving performance and meeting goals. The answers to those questions will formulate the behaviors you want your people to embody every day.

For instance, your leadership team might be asking:

How can we get our people to be more organized?
The behavior associated with that question 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 can help leaders 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 employees.

Can A Company’s Core Values And Behaviors Coexist?

Understandably, leaders who’ve emphasized a set of core values for years may balk at the idea of switching gears to promote a list of behaviors. But behaviors don’t replace the values etched into the company’s mission and vision—they lift them off the page and make them a reality.

Leaders may also wonder how they can help their staff understand the difference between the core values and behaviors.

The best approach is to tell employees that implementing the behaviors ensures that the company’s values will show up daily in the workplace. What’s more, they offer practical direction for a broader scope of “boots on the ground” activity than the core values do. They don’t cancel out the values; they augment them.

Don’t Map Behaviors To Values

Leaders who see the advantage of defining standard behaviors for their company but already have a set of core values often make a fundamental error:

They separate behaviors into groups that correspond to specific values.

The problem with this idea is that while some behaviors might align with the values, there may not be a precise fit in many cases. For example, a constructive behavior like “Do it Right the First Time” could be essential to effective operations. But it doesn’t correspond with typical core values like “Honesty,” “Service,” or “Commitment.”

Trying to align behaviors to fit core values will dilute the practical things leaders want from their people. The values displayed for the world may not reflect all the behaviors needed to keep things running efficiently at your business.

Motivating People To Change Their Conduct

Some leaders may worry that their staff won’t be inclined to adopt the set of behaviors they’ve outlined. And that’s partly correct. Employees won’t change their conduct unless they’re persuaded to do so.  Without motivation, they have no real incentive to alter how they approach their work. And that kind of behavioral inertia paves the way for a default culture to take hold, possibly one rife with poor conduct.

CEOs who want to improve their company’s culture must set the stage to inspire their employees to get on board. They should begin by taking steps to strengthen employee engagement, which is the personal connection staff members feel with the company.

There are four ways leaders can develop this alignment:

  1. Reinforce employees’ value to the organization.

People crave a sense of purpose; they want to know that their work matters. So leaders should explain and reiterate to employees how their roles impact the organization. They should introduce this concept beginning with onboarding practices and continue to reinforce it with mentoring, coaching, and performance reviews.

If CEOs want to incentivize people to improve their behavior, they need to help them understand how their jobs fit into the big picture. And they should explain why they’re instrumental in achieving company goals.

  1. Lead by example.

Employees are far more inclined to alter their behavior if they witness leaders modeling the conduct they’re promoting. Before a CEO rolls out a program to upgrade behaviors, they must personally commit to rigorously uphold them and make their managers accountable for doing the same.

workplace accountability checklist

People have more confidence in leaders who hold themselves to the same standards they ask of others. Leaders who “walk the talk” create an environment of trust that makes employees much more receptive to new ideas and initiatives.

  1. Instill a sense of belonging.

Along with understanding their value to the organization, people want to feel connected to their coworkers. And with the increasing number of remote workers in many companies, helping employees feel a sense of belonging is more challenging than ever before.

Leaders who find ways to support camaraderie, facilitate communication, and help employees develop solid professional relationships will build a cohesive team—whether they work on-site or remotely. And positive peer pressure is instrumental in transforming behaviors in the workplace.

  1. Provide meaningful appreciation.

Before implementing a culture initiative, leaders should create a system to acknowledge employees who make strides. People appreciate being recognized for their successes and will try even harder to maintain good habits.

Leaders should identify means to communicate acknowledgment, whether one-on-one, in a group, or company-wide, and then promote meaningful appreciation as one of the company’s key behaviors. To be most effective, recognition should be timely, specific, and include how a person’s actions made a difference.

Leaders who take these measures to fortify employee engagement create a smooth runway for a culture initiative to succeed.  And ultimately, an improvement in the culture will further deepen workers’ commitment to the company.

Watch this CultureWise Customer Story to hear about how Stratus IP was able to instill a sense of belonging during the pandemic and connected their in-office and remote workforce.


How To Change Workplace Behaviors

Orchestrating the preferred behavioral standards in a business environment is more challenging than setting up operations. And to engrain them into a workforce, leaders can’t merely lay them out and then expect the culture to operate on autopilot. Failure to recognize that building culture must be a fluid and ongoing undertaking is why many companies fall short of their goals in this area.

CultureWise CEO David J. Friedman analyzed and honed a method to develop high-performing culture throughout his decades-long career as a business owner. He realized that while most CEOs were systematic and plan-oriented about perfecting every other aspect of their company, it never occurred to most of them to apply the same approach to developing their culture.

But to successfully transform existing behaviors and get new employees on board with these standards, leaders must create a strategy and adhere to a process. As Friedman notes:

“Just as we have operating systems for production, distribution, sales, and finance, we should have an operating system for our culture. We can and should be intentional about creating and driving the culture we want.”

Go Beyond Core Values To Develop A Powerful Company Culture

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

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.

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

Schedule a call with one of our specialists to learn more about how CultureWise has helped leaders across North America transform their companies.

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