Is Your Company Living its Values?

A company’s lived values reflect its true culture and personality. A mature firm will often have a different vibe and different values than a startup, for example, although there may be areas of overlap. In most cases, a company’s values represent a combination of reality and vision: experience and aspiration.

Effective business leaders aspire to live up to the vision by creating a culture that reflects the stated values of the company. Sometimes they fall short of that goal, but in the act of trying they discover what living their values really means.

In one of Ernest Hemingway’s earliest novels, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises, an older gentleman explains to the heroine, Lady Brett Ashley, that he enjoys life so much more in his old-age because he has come to appreciate the value of everything, having finally discovered (through trial and error), how to live in harmony with his values and beliefs. The same feeling of satisfaction and well-being permeates organizations that have learned this lesson.

Reflected Sphere by Colin Mutchier, Wikimedia Commons

Values Reflected in Action

Consistency between belief and action is the core of integrity in an individual and the heart of culture in a company. Achieving alignment between values and actions within an organization can be difficult, but it can be done. Let’s consider a few examples, from startup to mega-corp.

Buffer, a social media sharing tool with a global team of 17, begins with the hiring process. For Buffer, ensuring that a candidate exemplifies and contributes to the evolution of their dynamic values is an essential part of the interview process.

Facebook, with 6,800 staff spread across 48 offices, can’t oversee every interview, so they take a macro approach. For example, CEO Mark Zuckerberg included the five values Facebook was founded on in a letter to investors before Facebook’s 2012 IPO. These include a focus on “solving the most important problems,” being bold, open and building social value. While it’s difficult to know how individual employees at a larger company like Facebook “live” these values on a day-to-day basis; the company’s involvement in and the strategic shift from a browser-centric business model to a mobile one are two examples of how Facebook’s values are manifested.

Google has over $59 billion in annual revenues, 70 global offices, 49,000 staff, and is a clear example of how a massive, mature company strives to live its values. Google’s founders wrote a guiding philosophy in the early days of the venture entitled Ten things we know to be true. The list starts with “Focus on the user and all else will follow,” and includes, “You can make money without doing evil,” (later often paraphrased as “Do No Evil.”) The company’s recent shift away from Google+ is one example of Google listening to users and then changing direction in response to that feedback.

Two of Google’s ten things reference the value of information. Information is at the heart of their product offering and fuels everything they do, including people management decisions. As Slate reporter, Farhad Manjoo put it, “Google monitors its employees’ well-being to a degree that can seem absurd to those who work outside Mountain View.”[1]  The company uses the information gained through monitoring employees to help improve working conditions and bolster employee happiness. This example also shows how Google continues to “make money without doing evil” and why the company is regularly named one of the best places to work.

Company Culture Stress Test

Every company has a culture that reflects its lived values. To determine whether your organization is true to its stated values (or really believes in something else), you’ll have to ask some tough questions, starting with whether you and everyone else in the company know what those stated values are! Some other key questions that will help you determine whether your existing culture is aligned with your stated values include:

  • Are your customers happy or are you suffering from high rates of attrition?
  • Are employees engaged and motivated?
  • Is staff morale low and turnover excessive?
  • Does your productivity lead or lag industry averages?
  • Are management actions and decisions consistent with stated values?
  • Does employee behavior reflect stated values?
  • Do managers trust their employees?
  • Do employees trust their managers and executives?

If your company culture does not reflect your stated values, it means the organization has organically developed a different set of values based on what’s really important to the company as demonstrated by daily actions and decisions. This situation requires one of two responses:

  1. either the company’s stated values need to be rewritten to reflect the demonstrated culture if it does accurately reflect what’s important; or
  2. leadership must initiate a “cultural revolution” to bring people back into alignment with the company’s stated values.

Ignoring the schism is not an option. One of the most corrosive forces in any workplace is incongruity between what people (especially leaders and managers), say is important and what they show is important through their actions and decisions. This creates unsustainable cultural stress and eventually results in a toxic working environment.

Creating a high-performance, values-driven organization means identifying core values; communicating those values; demonstrating them in all management actions and decisions and requiring the same of employees; rewarding behaviors that uphold and exemplify those values; and never rewarding or recognizing behaviors that contradict them.


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