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  • David S Cohen

Creating a Spurious Culture

At a recent conference, I spoke to an audience composed mostly of people with “C” in their titles. It seemed a good time to do an in-the-moment survey.

I asked the group of CEOs and CFOs whether their companies have defined unique corporate values. About two-thirds raised their hands. Those that did could only list some of their respective values, without pause and without stumbling.

The values, however, were all the same, so how hard could they have been to remember? Integrity, teamwork, customer, learning, people, innovation I could have listed them all myself without even asking. At least, I suggest, no one used the phrase “thinking outside of the box”!

A brief discussion followed. I proposed that since all their organizations listed similar values, any employee should be able to switch companies, especially within their respective industry, and not even notice a change in atmosphere.

Of course not, I was told. Each company is unique. You could sense it as soon as you walked in the door. That’s what is meant by organizational culture, they declared. Reluctantly, they agreed that their values did not particularly reflect the culture of their firms in any concrete or meaningful way. They words weren’t linked to actions and were simply empty rhetoric.

I encouraged them to think more deeply about what culture means. It grows out of what people do, out of the way we get things done successful, for which we get positive recognition. Organizations, if you haven’t noticed, are very picky about what their employees do. They want them to engage in particular sets of actions which, when repeated over time, achieve desired results.

Values, therefore, are not just words on the back of a business card; they are the actions, which are acceptable within the organizational culture. In fact, the range of desired behaviors is so important that it needs to be set by those at the top and cascaded through the organization.

That’s why it’s so dismaying when a roomful of CEOs can’t name their own corporate values. As stewards of the culture, they should be thinking continually about how to direct the actions of others in ways consistent with those values. Like everyone else, many CEOs have come to believe that values and culture can be superimposed on an organization, created like a marketing campaign to suit the needs of the moment. After which it becomes to role of Human Resource to play a key role in the reinforcement of the overreaching culture. It’s not an HR thing; it’s a CEO thing.

The truth is while projecting a successful or firm culture to investors and the media may seem like a sure-fire means of branding an organization, real culture and heartfelt values must be exhibited through the consistent, predicable, and heartfelt actions of executives towards their employees, to each other and to the customer, supplier or client.

Otherwise, when executives articulate values but act contrary to them, the result is employee cynicism. The values, employees realize, are only surface coating meant for the outside world. It’s like the organization the lists ‘people’ as a value, then significantly downsizes after a bad third quarter. Or the one that declares ‘learning’ sacred but cuts the training and development budget. In other words values are supposed to mean something. Our actions should be measured by the consistency with which they align to the values. And executives decide how meaningful that is.

When values are meaningful, culture and work habits reflect them. Employees can even tell stories about ‘corporate legends’ that typify the values. Where the actions that define the values are alive and well there’s no need for managers to watch every move or for employees to consult their ‘rule book’ before acting. People live the values, act accordingly, and the results follow.

Here are some general guidelines for developing your company’s values:

  • State values not just as words that mean anything to everyone but rather as the specific actions that exemplifies the values within the context of the company.

  • Values do not waver with the market and political environment.

  • Values are not relative or situational or can be compromised.

  • You should have five or less, more people don’t remember and often the actions begin to repeat themselves.

  • Articulate the actions that define the values to each level of management and have that level pass the meaning and interpretation of them to the next.

  • Values only reach people and affect them if they see their direct manager live and act accordingly.

  • Very important that the values are brought into the business decision process. The correct of the decision should be measured according to the decision’s alignment to the values.

  • Hold people accountable for actions that violate the values. Those that do should never be promoted or rewarded.

  • Celebrate those that live the values, especially those that live them in tough times.

Next time you are asked what your corporate values are, tell the truth. State those things that make your company unique. Tell people about what is consistently celebrated and rewarded. It just might attract the right people, retain those you have and improve engagement and your overall organizational performance.

If you paint a picture that is different from reality, your employees will soon recognize the shallowness of that and lose faith.