3 Myths about the Relationship between Values and Culture

Picture of a bible and a statement saying that culture drive a strategy

Corporate values and organizational culture may be closely related (or should be) but there is a lot of misunderstanding out there about how they work together.

Let’s begin with some definitions. We’ll call Corporate Values the compass that guides decisions and your sense of what is right and wrong. Organizational Culture, on the other hand, is how things truly get done in an organization. Values are often written in manuals for employees to read when they first come aboard. Culture is an intangible that can only be measured by understanding the way people think, behave and work.

Here are three myths about the relationship between the two:

  1. Corporate values drive behavior.
    Employees do not necessarily look to a code of behavior when they act; instead they are more likely to look at others around them. How their co-workers and leaders are behaving is the way they are most apt to act. When sound values are the foundation for an ethical culture, all works well; other times it does not. Consider the situation at Enron. The company had a very clear, but lengthy, statement of values that was all about acting with integrity, respect and excellence. But, instead, the Enron organizational culture valued and promoted greed. So when decisions were made, it was more often the profit-motive that drove actions rather than the more high-minded values.
  2. Corporate values always come first.
    In general, this is the way it works. Values become the bedrock of an organization and then culture is the overlay. But it is not always the case. Zappos, for example, did it “backwards.” Tony Hsieh as CEO established the culture that mattered most to him–a culture where the happiness of the customers and employees was of primary importance. He was so committed to creating this environment of customer and employee satisfaction that he offered $2,000 to any new employee who wanted to leave after a trial period if they did not subscribe to the Zappos culture. Only after the culture was well established did he, at the request of his employees, look toward defining corporate values. And who did he go to for the values? His employees created them.
  3. Organizational Culture must never change.
    As businesses evolve, it may be necessary for the corporate culture to change along with the needs of the organization. As you grow, for instance, it may not make sense for you to make all your decisions in the open. You may still want transparency as a value but you need not include all your employees in all the details of every move you make. Information can be cascaded down through the larger organization. What you can do is maintain an environment where questions are welcomed and answers are direct and honest. This kind of transparency works as the company grows too large to gather in a single meeting room.

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