I’m having an ongoing dialogue with several of my colleagues around the issue of culture. We have been sharing multiple articles on the topic of culture and what others think we need to have to create or maintain a healthy company culture. So, who’s right?
We believe everyone is, to a point. Over the last couple of years, we have seen an increase in articles on the need to establish a culture of respect. If you Google culture of respect you will get an idea of what we are seeing. If you look at the trend data for the culture of respect you see it has been pretty consistent until around 2020, then it spikes.
That 2020 spike may reflect the increase of articles and information about all of the disruptive behaviors of people and the need to practice better diversity and inclusion. As a possible result of the pandemic, we are also seeing articles on the need to focus our cultures on respect, trust, and kindness within our workforce.
All of these ideas are true and for the most part, many of the articles are missing the real point.
Company values vs. company culture
Many of my colleagues are involved in organizational development focusing on facilitating soft skills for leadership. For many of us, helping leaders target and maintain a stable organizational culture is a moving target. What we decided is there is one reason why everyone needs to stop worrying about culture, it’s the same reason why we do worry about culture and that is, people.
Indeed’s editorial team in an article published in 2021 did a good job identifying the differences between culture and values in an article titled: Culture vs. Values: What’s the Difference? (With Examples). In the article, the editorial team defined a company’s values as the guiding principles that have a direct effect on the company’s culture.
What this means is if you want a certain type of culture make sure the company values are the foundation of the culture you want.
I recently worked for an organization that had some of the best and most easily understood values I had seen in a long time. Seven values were written by the employees, with guidance from leadership. There were six values but last year they added one more to further support the foundation of their culture. The company had a team of employees write the value in several different ways. The value was submitted to all the employees to vote on the verbiage that made the best statement.
Here are their seven values, paraphrased:
- Everyone does the right thing.
- One team working towards a common goal.
- Everyone is responsible for the customers’ experience
- Everyone practices open communication at all levels.
- Everyone actively participates in improving the community in which we live and work.
- Everyone actively works to advance social justice, diversity, and inclusion.
- Encourages continuous improvement, innovation, and the pursuit of excellence.
What about the people?
In a learning event with some leaders, we discussed some of the challenges around maintaining culture. One of the leaders said, “Well the whole problem with culture is the people.”
Of course, I have to ask myself the question, “What don’t I know?” I looked at the leader and asked, “Tell me more about what you mean.” He goes on to say something that makes total sense. He said that if you are trying to create a culture of respect or trust, or whatever you want to call it, every person in the organization or on your team could have a different idea about what respect is or what trust looks like. So every time you lose an employee or add new employees that combined view of respect or trust will change every time.
At this point, I decided to validate his observation. I had the group do the trust exercise I used with other groups. The leadership group decided that the observation was valid because based on everyone’s historical experience with respect or trust people could have totally different views making it difficult to create a common culture.
Everyone seemed to be getting slightly frustrated because there was no clear answer. I suggested that there was no clear outcome and instead, I gave them an alternative idea. I asked them what they felt about their company’s values. All of them were supportive of the values, so I asked them to forget about the culture and instead focus on the values. I suggested that focusing on the values as the cultural foundation this could lead to the culture you want.
Earlier in this post, I talked about the company with the seven values. This organization has offices located in four different states. When I visited the offices in the different states I noticed something. The culture in each location was different than the other locations, with one big exception. Every office culture was built on the company’s values, the office culture was different and the values were heavily embedded into the culture.
I asked the CEO about the company’s values. He asked me if I ever saw the values posted anywhere in any office. I thought for a moment and I said the only place I have ever seen them is on your website. He said, exactly. Our values are not posted to be read, our values are to be lived.
Exercise | Deliberate practice
Back to our leaders. They understood what I was saying but they weren’t sure how focusing on the values could affect the culture because there were too many people in the organization. I sent them on a break and told them when they got back I would have an answer for them.
During the break, I found a copy of their values, put it up on the screen, and closed the door to the meeting room. I met everyone in the hallway and told them I was going to open the door, they could not go in, and I wanted them to answer a question.
I had them stand outside the door and look in the room, I asked them to describe the culture in the room. They looked at me and said that there was no culture in the room. Really? Look again and tell me what you see. One person finally said I see our values up on the screen. I didn’t say anything and just stared at them. That person says, soooo, the culture in the room is the values?
I pointed to three of the leaders and told them to go stand in the middle of the room. I asked them again to describe the culture in the room. They said well the culture has changed because you added three people. I asked, did the culture change? Or was it enhanced by the three people? I sent five more people in and asked the same question, and now they just stared at me. I told everyone to go back into the room and I wanted someone to tell me about the culture in the room.
Finally, someone spoke up and said, the values are the same and the culture is similar but different. We enriched it by infusing our experiences, ideas, opinions, and thoughts. I asked, did any of you lose your individuality within the culture? Someone said, no, we made it more diverse and inclusive at the same time while keeping true to our values.
If you want to test your culture and values or find out how people see it, try this exercise and have a dialogue about it. The point is if you have clear and concise values and your expectation of your people is to live the values, then the culture can manifest itself in a way where everyone can live the values without losing their individuality. You want a culture of respect, what do your organizational values have to say about that?
Don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow never comes. What you have is today and this is the best time to begin anything.