• David S Cohen

Inside Out: Where Your Values Come From

No one can tell you what your values should be. No one can tell you what to believe or what religion is correct. So why do people think that an organization can determine its internal values based on external sources, and why do organizations think people can "just conform" to the values of the group? It isn’t that easy. Have you ever tried to change a friend or relative's values by offering a convincing argument? How did that go for you? I thought so.

Our values are the result of a confluence of life experiences. Everyone holds a wide spectrum of beliefs that feel like values. We don't really know if those beliefs are cherished values until they get tested by circumstances. When the pressure is on, values get real.

So, it goes with employees and organizations. It is easy to say you value X or Y, it is harder to stand by those beliefs when they are under pressure unless they are truly values. Even so, we expect that employees will adopt and conform to the values of the organization. Just because you are told that something is a value, or agree that it is, does not mean it will be meaningful. Imposed values do not excite and engage people or drive discretionary effort. Yet, people and organizations throw around the ‘values’ thing as if they are items on a menu that can be selected, mixed and matched, and changed at will.

There is a better way.

Why do values matter in an organization?

Values matter because they are the foundation for our attitudes about life and determine our actions. It is our actions that show our values are genuine.

Likewise, the stated (overt) values of an organization matter when that is what people see demonstrated by the leaders and each other. They are also a promise to potential employees as to what can be expected, how they will be treated, and how decisions will be made. They are a promise waiting to be delivered.

Too often, when you join a company, you realize that there is really a second set of values in play. The underground (or covert) values are the actual basis for how things work in the organization. These ‘hidden’ values are defined by what is done when no one is watching and how decisions are made under pressure.

When there are differences between the overt and covert values tension emerges in the organization. Leaders earn the cynicism of employees because the employees wonder why leaders / executives don’t behave the way they are “promised” to; per the overt values.

Values are usually truer in founder-led organizations. Founders surround themselves with like-minded people they know. Values are generated out of their decisions and actions. In turn that leadership group hires new employees who quickly learn to be successful by following a common code of behaviour. Founders don’t have time to ‘research’ the external environment and benchmark values. They act according to what they know is true and authentic to them.

Why are behaviours important?

It is only through one’s actions (behaviours) that another person can learn the meaning of a value.

Behaviours are what differentiates us from one another, as individuals and as organizations. People and organizations will behave differently in similar situations. To understand values, you need to observe the behaviours that define that value.

When an organization defines values in behavioural form, this creates clarity, consistency and mutual understanding of how people must act to be successful. Basing behaviours on authentic values, gives employees clear expectations and makes your organization a safe and desirable place to work. When values are defined as meaningless canned phrases, the right behaviors become ambiguous.

When do values matter the most?

Typically, the best time to observe the value-behaviours of the company is during a significant crisis. When tough decisions must be made, those decisions are driven by our values and dictate the actions we should take. That is when we learn a belief is often just a belief and not a value.

When the real values of the organization are different from the stated ones and leaders make decisions based on those real values, cognitive dissonance arises among employees. They become stressed by the difference between what is said versus what is done.

If leaders don’t act in alignment with the values of the organization, then there is less impetus for others to behave the way they should. People begin to rationalize their own actions to meet urgent objectives expediently. When an employee is rewarded despite using behaviours that are counter to the stated values, trust among other employees is lost. To make matters more complex, if leaders are the people breaking the values, employees who believe in the values lose enthusiasm for the organization. Once trust among employees is damaged or gone, it is almost impossible to regain.

Articulating New Values Will Not Change Your Culture

I often see companies attempt to write a “behavioural rulebook” for the organization to change what they don’t like. There are parts of most cultures that shouldn’t be celebrated. However, writing behaviours that run counter to real values will not help and might exacerbate the problem. Behaviours need to be genuine to the organization.

Here's a better approach. Choose those parts of your culture that you want to celebrate and sustain in your values. If there are behaviours that you don’t like that are part of your culture, find a different way to try to change them. Look to the system to understand why people are making certain decisions. For example, you may be hoping for a culture of team while promoting individual rewards. Behaviours, both negative and positive, reflect the system that your organization has created.

Change is an evolutionary not a revolutionary process. Values and company culture do not change because you will it to. You must act on such a change long enough for people to believe it is not a one and done moment. Leadership must own the actions first and demonstrate them consistently over time.

Your Stated Values Should Reflect Your Covert Culture

While values articulation is not the time to change your culture, it is a great time to strengthen and celebrate who you really are. If you are still in business, then there is something about your culture that is helping you to succeed. Find out what it is about your culture and celebrate it. It is your company DNA. Share the stories that exemplify living your values; especially in difficult times. You need your overt and covert values to be aligned for the culture to be strengthened through leadership action.

It’s Not About What Makes You Different, It’s About What Makes You ---> You

Another thing that I have seen with organizations that are articulating their culture is that everyone thinks their culture is completely unique. While your overall culture might be unique or different, there will still be aspects of your culture that are the like other organizations. Therefore, it doesn’t serve your purpose to focus on what makes you different if that focus causes you to miss out on something that defines your organization despite not being different than others.

Over the years there have been some leading academics who have said the values come from the outside in. Such people claim values are formed by drawing on and amalgamating the belief systems of your stakeholders, suppliers, partners and customers. But that approach means ignoring what has made you successful to this point. You are who you are. Don’t be afraid of that. You might have some aspects that are like other companies but your subtle nuances will be uniquely yours. That is why values are built only from the inside.

Use this understanding to build a stronger organization through your people. Select only those who first and foremost fit your specific value behaviours. Reward, recognize, promote and give bonuses only to those people who live your values while achieving their results. Most importantly only promote to senior roles those who already exemplify the values, without exception or excuse.

Finally, stories that exemplify your values through concrete behaviors help you to celebrate and spread your values among current and future employees. Company rituals also help reinforce your values. You want your company procedures/processes, ways of doing things, how your people organise themselves and make decisions and how they treat one another to be aligned with your values. There are no exceptions. Living your values does not allow for thinking outside the box.


You can read more on David’s perspective on how strong corporate cultures drives passion, productivity, high engagement and pride in his book on values, culture and leadership: Inside the Box. If interested in finding out more about David’s approach to discovering your company’s authentic values and corresponding behaviours, please contact him at david@sagltd.com.

David is a globally recognized thought leader in the areas of talent management and corporate culture. If you want to learn more on the structured behavioral interview process a, please read The Talent Edge: A Behavioral Approach to Hiring, Developing, and Keeping Top Performers. If your company is interested in a workshop on how to conducted Structured Behavioral Interview, how to write company specific and authentic behavioural statements, and wish to learn more about an anchored rating scale for more objective and accurate scoring of responses; please contact David directly.

#Culture #Values


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