The Real Problem with Core Values and Organizational Culture
One of the first thing leaders do when they finally turn their attention to culture is to develop a list of core values. And there is an obvious logic to this that you can trace back to the fundamental definition of culture. Some people will say culture is “how we do things around here.” There’s some truth to that, but that’s just the behavior side. It turns out the behavior is driven by something deeper: what is valued.
Core Values and Culture
For the record, here’s my definition of culture: Culture is the collection of words, thoughts, actions, and “stuff” that clarify and reinforce what is truly valued in an organization.
Behavior is driven and shaped by what is valued, and we make clear what is valued through an interesting combination of what we do, what we say, what we think, and even tangible “stuff” like dress codes, office design, etc. Given that, it seems logical as a first step to write up a list of core values, right? By naming what is valued, we get straight to the point.
Well, sort of. The problem with core values is that when we choose them, we are thinking about ideals, rather than reality. We choose the values that sound right to us, that align with our personal values. The result is sadly predictable: integrity, excellence, quality, innovation, collaboration, fun(!)…is any of this sounding familiar? If I can tell you what your values are, and I don’t even know you, then something’s not quite right here.
Core Values and Your Organization
There’s nothing wrong with all those values, of course. They’re great. But organizations don’t need “great” values, they need to value the things that specifically drive their success. For example, culture cool kid Zappos, values authenticity as captured in one of their core values: “create fun and a little weirdness.”
Now, I’m a big fan of authenticity in the workplace, and I think we need more of it. But that’s not why they chose that value. They made a strategic move a long time ago to double down on customer service. They decided that in order to grow like they did, they needed to blow people away with customer service. And guess what. If you make everyone sound “corporate” and read a script, you’re not going to blow people away. But if you let people be their weird selves and have a little fun…that creates some buzz. They chose this value because it drove their success.
So yes, some really great companies have some really clear core values. But don’t fall into the trap of choosing ones that sound nice or match what you read in Good to Great (or fill in your favorite business book here). Create a culture that works in your unique environment and write up the values to match it. People may be attracted to nice-sounding values, but they will fall in love with an organization that truly knows what makes them successful.