What is Culture? Are You Wasting Your Time With Fancy Value Statements?

Value statements don’t make a culture. Ask Enron, whose values were communication, respect, integrity, and excellence. How many companies have you known who have the value of “safety” written fancily on their web site and the walls of their offices, but in reality, have a deplorable safety rating? There’s a big difference between value statements and values. Value statements are what we claim to be. Values are what we actually do. Your culture is not your statements. Your culture is your actions.

So…What is culture? Culture is the “the way things are done around here.” You get an indication of your culture by listening to what people talk about when the boss isn’t in theroom, or how you describe your workplace with your closest friends. If you want to know what you culture is, don’t read the web site or look at the fancy value statements on the wall. Look at who you hire. Look at who you promote and what actions get recognized and rewarded in your organization. Culture is no different than life: How you act will speak so loudly that people won’t hear what you say. Culture isn’t a noun. Culture, like love, is a verb.

Does this mean that developing clear statements of values is a waste of time? No. It’s important to clarify the values and principles that you expect should guide the actions of every employee in your organization. The mistake that most executive teams make is that they think that writing down the values is all it takes. Executives make a huge mistake when they take their senior management team to the mountains and return to “roll out” the “10 Commandments” in a communication strategy from the front of the room.

In reality, clarifying the values is just the beginning of building an aligned, engaged, accountable culture.

Once you get the value statements on the web site and the walls, you have to create the conversation. You have to make noise about the document. Ask questions. Challenge respectfully. Tell the stories. If you haven’t found contradictions in the values and the guiding principles you espouse, you haven’t had deep enough conversations. You haven’t invested enough. You have to turn the statements into actions, and actions into promises. You have to hold people accountable – at every level – for living the values.

It’s okay to be misaligned. That’s human. Don’t be afraid to see the misalignment. While you will want to focus on the positive, and shine a light on actions that demonstrate a support of the values, don’t be afraid to embrace the negative. Invite people, especially your direct reports, to challenge you when they see the misalignment. Having a standard gives you something to aim at.

Are you wasting your time with fancy value statements on the wall? Not if you are committed to getting these off the wall and into the hearts and hands of every employee.

It doesn’t really matter that you understand what culture is. What matters is that your design and deliver one that matters.

Organizational Culture: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest

To be engaged today, people need to feel a sense of passion, personal vision, and to express their unique talents. But this is only half of what full authentic expression – the heart of a culture – is about. This week, in a committee meeting of a local non-profit group, I was reminded that a commitment to contribution – choosing service over self-interest – is the other component to authentic expression. It’s like the wings of a bird. Without both passion and service, your organizational culture simply isn’t going to fly. It’s the law of giving.

The universe operates through dynamic exchange. Culture is ultimately about energy, and authentic expression inspires us while giving keeps the flow of energy moving. In our willingness to give, we keep the abundance of the universe circulating in our lives, and the energy of a culture alive.

You don’t have to go to Africa to be of service. There are plenty of opportunities to practice giving right in our own communities. Here are three ways:

  1. Wherever you go, bring a gift.
    The gift may be a compliment, a smile, a word of encouragement, appreciation, caring, kindness, gratitude, a generous spirit, or even some patience and grace. As you circulate what you have been given, you keep the energy of your culture alive, because cultural energy is simply universal energy.
  2. Practice receiving all the gifts that life has to offer.
    Recognize, and look for all the ways that people you work and live with are conspiring to help you. Take time to experience the beauty of a sunset, a spring flower, the sound of birds singing, a child in love with life, the wisdom of an elder, or the attempt of a colleague to bring excellence to a project. There are gifts all around us every day, if we just s-l-o-w d-o-w-n long enough to notice. And what you notice, you focus on, and what you focus on grows. Try it.
  3. Be a giver, not a taker.
    There appears to be two kinds of people in the world: those who help, and those who hinder; those who give and those who take; those who lift, and those who lean; those who contribute, and those who consume. Which kind of person will you decide to be? Make a commitment to look, each day, for opportunities to support others, to contribute in some way to making the world around you a better place by your presence, to choose service over self-interest.