The Difference between Active and Passive Corporate Values

The Difference between Active and Passive Corporate Values
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The Huge Disconnect between Active and Passive Corporate Values
We define corporate values as the company-wide guidelines for desired workplace behaviors.  How closely connected are the corporate values that you live (active values) with those that you promote (passive values)?  And we know from our organizational culture assessment data that the bigger the gap between “what you say” and “what you do”, the more potential for an unhealthy culture, a low performing culture, or a strategically misaligned culture.

Here’s the problem: declaring values is easy but linking them to actual day-to-day behavior is not. And when the stated values of an organization are just empty words, they become meaningless and lead to employee confusion, employee disregard, and employee disengagement.  Take this now famous example:  The corporate values of “Communication,” “Respect,” “Integrity,” and “Excellence” are hard to argue against. Most of our clients have at least two of them in their list of core values.  Sadly, these are the corporate values of Enron.  They certainly did not help to prevent the largest corporate bankruptcy in history. 

Meaningless values statements undermine leadership credibility and accountability. 

The Connecting Link
Think of your workplace culture as how employees think, behave, and get work done when no one is looking. Culture is the alignment of both intention and reality. The connecting link between active and passive corporate values is the behaviors that are consistently and visibly lived, encouraged, rewarded, and celebrated from the C-Suite to the frontline in its policies and practices.  Unfortunately, most organizations think of values implementation as a onetime marketing and communications event instead of a change initiative that purposefully weaves core values into everything related to how work actually gets done and important decisions get made.

The impact of corporate values is not felt through communications campaigns; it is felt through how they play out in day-to-day decisions and business practices.  Effective core values should be felt because they are purposefully integrated into how the company treats employees in terms of hiring, developing, managing, promoting, rewarding, and firing practices.  

A Closer Look
Best practices suggest that you regularly examine the behaviors you say matter in your published corporate documents (aspirational values) and the behaviors you see in your employees (actual values). Let’s say the organization aspires to a culture of diversity but hires with clear bias. Or the company promotes open dialogue but fires the employee who acts as a “devil’s advocate” by respectfully challenging the boss’ pet proposal. Or the company says it wants to innovate but, when push comes to shove, they reject change and retreat to the old ways simply out of a fear of the “new.”  Or the sales team that wants to put the customer first but continually tries to push (and reward) self-serving deals at the end of each quarter.

In all these examples, the behaviors don’t match the espoused ways of thinking or behaving.

Questions to Ask
To see where you stand, ask questions such as:

  • What makes employees successful here?
  • What behaviors does the company reward?
  • How should I act in order to get ahead?
  • What behaviors get punished?
  • What stories do we tell and commemorate?

3 Common Corporate Values Issues to Keep an Eye On

  1. Lack of Specificity
    Employees tell us that much of the disconnect arises out of vague wording. Lofty words like “Teamwork” need to have a clear definition and be translated into more specific micro behaviors that people can see and understand.  For example, from a leadership perspective, “Teamwork” could be defined as the ability to “create a sense of cohesion on the team by linking its mission to organizational strategy and helping it accomplish its goals.”  Or it could simply mean “respectfully collaborates well with others to reach a common goal.”

    Are your corporate values specific enough for people to know what is expected?

  2. Lack of Clarity
    Overall values need to be translated into behaviors that employees get.  For “Teamwork,” the associated micro behaviors could be things like advocate for team cohesion, establish team-building activities to strengthen cohesion, suggest procedures and processes to accomplish team goals, and link team’s mission to organization’s strategy.  Be as clear as possible about what you expect.

    Are behavioral and performance expectations clear enough?

  3. Lack of Cultural Accountability
    To make an impact, your corporate values must be explicitly woven into your hiring, performance management, promotion, professional development, succession planning, and reward systems.  People must see that following or not following defined team norms matters. Otherwise, they are just corporate slogans that can be ignored.

    Do your values have enough teeth?

  4. Lack of Leadership
    While most leadership teams understand the ineffectiveness of consensus-driven decision-making when it comes to strategy creation, they often ask HR to build employee consensus around corporate values.  While on the surface this sounds like a good idea to improve employee engagement and buy-in, corporate values are not about building consensus.  They are about defining the fundamental beliefs and decision-making filters required to live the company’s mission and vision in a way that makes sense.  You certainly want employee input and buy-in, but cultural guardrails need to be set from the top in a way that aligns with the corporate strategy.

    Are you leaders setting the stage for success?

The Bottom Line
If you truly want to narrow the gap between active and passive corporate values, your leaders need to create clear and meaningful values, model and reward the desired behaviors, and have consequences for those who do not behave according to agreed-upon values. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time and shrinking your influence as a leader with meaningless values that have no accountability.  Let actions, not words, define your culture.

To learn more about active and passive corporate values, download The 3 Levels of Culture that You Must Get Right to Create High Performance

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