The Why Behind Company Core Values

The Problem

For the past few decades, organizations have felt compelled to issue various statements to describe their organization’s aspirations and ideals. Originally, it was limited to just a single statement – the mission statement.  But now, such statements include an organization’s mission, vision, corporate social responsibility viewpoint, purpose, principles, and company core values.  Leaders are then asked to align their people to these aspirational statements.  Yet how can alignment take place if leaders are puzzled about what these statements mean and do in the first place?

In addition, these aspirational statements are layered on top of the organization’s objectives and key results (OKRs), which are then measured by a myriad of complex metrics (key performance indicators, or KPIs).  It can be an alphabet soup of overload that leaves managers wondering which piece of guidance is the most important. 

Are such aspirational statements necessary? What are the differences between them and do the differences matter?  Do leaders understand why these concepts exist and how to use them properly?  This article will answer these questions and help leaders understand why one of these elements is far more important than the others.  

Key Definitions

To begin, let us take a moment and define each of the various concepts:

  • A mission statement tells the world what the organization does. 
  • A vision statement strives to paint a picture of what the organization wants to be when it grows up (the organization described in a perfect future state).
  • A corporate social responsibility statement (CSR) outlines the organization’s goals and values in its role as member of society, often focusing on issues of equality, human rights, working conditions, etc.  
  • An organizational purpose explains the problem(s) the organization is trying to solve for its customers. 
  • Finally, company core values and principles describe the organization’s culture.  These serve as the moral compass for the organization. 

This article will explain why company core values are the most important of these various tools and how a solid culture is built on the backbone of organization/company core values.  We define culture as:

A set of values, norms, guiding beliefs, and understandings that is shared by members of an organization and is taught to new members as the way to feel, think, and behave.

In other words, culture is “the way things are done around a particular place”.  The challenge is that culture exists whether you want it to or not.  It grows organically, and, if left unattended, it will absorb some good things, but a lot of dysfunction will find its way into the mix.  Deliberate culture, on the other hand is carefully cultivated and reflects deliberate attention to how the organization fulfills its mission, purpose, vision, etc. 

Many organizations believe the best way to define their culture and company core values is through a list of aspirational ideals that are important to the organization.  For example, an organization may state that “Care” is one of their company core values, and they may say something like, “At XYZcorp, we care about our people and our customers.”  What does that statement mean, however?  What should a leader at XYZcorp actually do to demonstrate caring?

Here is another example to consider.  At American Express they proclaim a belief in “Customer Commitment.” Yet again, what does that phrase mean?  Does this mean the customer is always right?  Does it mean the customer gets everything they want?  While values statement sound good and they help with branding and corporate image, these statements often fall short because they fail to teach an employee what to do.

Instead of listing aspirational values, an alternative approach is to define company core values through the process of designing and implementing core leadership competencies that every leader or associate is expected to follow and master.  To continue our analogy, let us examine what “Care” looks like under this approach.  The “Care” competency is defined by the following behaviors:

  • Demonstrates a personal interest in the well-being of others.
  • Makes time for other people.
  • Sympathizes with others meeting personal or professional challenges.
  • Provides help when others are overworked or stressed.

With these four behavioral statements, the leader has a much clearer understanding of what is expected of them, and they can take action to improve or develop in these areas. In addition, behavioral statements are something that can be quantitatively measured and analyzed.   

Preparing for the Unplanned

We made the claim that culture is the most important of the organizational aspiration tools. This is because culture is the way you address the unplanned challenges that inevitably arise.  A strategic plan tells everyone what to do and works really well when everything goes according to plan.  Assumptions turn out to be right, and future events unfold as expected.  If X happens, then do Y.  This is the easy stuff, and it almost never happens this way. 

As the professional boxer Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” In business, we get punched in the face all too often by unexpected challenges.  Assumptions prove to be wrong, markets change, or a pandemic stops the entire world in its tracks.  It is in these unplanned moments that culture takes over and becomes the mission, purpose, vision, and plan all rolled into one.   

The late Harvard business professor, Clayton Christensen, astutely observed:

Once members of the organization begin to adopt ways of working and criteria for making decisions by assumption, rather than by conscious decision, then those processes and values come to constitute the organization’s culture [company core values]. As companies grow from a few employees to hundreds and thousands, the challenge of getting all employees to agree on what needs to be done and how it should be done so that the right jobs are done repeatedly and consistently can be daunting for even the best managers. Culture is a powerful management tool in these situations. Culture enables employees to act autonomously and causes them to act consistently.” – Innovators Dilemma (emphasis added)

We agree with Professor Christensen!  By establishing “Care” as a leadership competency, then a leader will know how to shepherd a struggling employee who is facing a cancer diagnosis, a lost family member, or any other personal crisis.  They will make time to listen, demonstrate both empathy and sympathy, and provide help to keep their employee from being overworked or stressed.  They will know instinctually what to do. 

Find Your Company’s Core Values

In summary, we are not suggesting that mission, vision, social responsibility, and purpose do not matter.  They very much matter; but, in the day-to-day whirlwind of getting stuff done, we believe the better course is for leaders to first focus on the company’s core values and culture by defining for everyone the leadership competencies that each employee is expected to learn and demonstrate.  This route will teach employees how to behave in both the unplanned and planned moments they encounter each day. 

Webinar: How to Build an Effective 360 Feedback Assessment

Date: Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Time: 1:00pm Eastern / 10:00 am Pacific

Presenters: Christian Nielson, David Long

Cost: Free

A properly designed 360 instrument not only facilitates individual development, it can establish and reinforce effective leadership expectations and behaviors. Learn the key strategies and considerations to build the right tool for your team.

This Webinar qualifies for SHRM and HRCI credit.  

Employee Pulse Surveys, What You Need to Know

Are you thinking about employee pulse surveys for your organization? Few would debate the notion that keeping fingers on the pulse of employees is critical to business success. At DecisionWise, we’ve been focused on employee pulse surveys for over 20 years, and never has it been clearer that business results can be directly tied to the employee experience. In fact, we go as far as to say the Customer Experience (CX) is a direct result of the Employee Experience (EX). In other words, CX = EX. Understanding that experience, then, becomes an important priority in business success.

We recently completed our annual survey of Human Resources executives, in which we asked about their employee engagement feedback practices. This DecisionWise research of over 200 global companies found that two-thirds of organizations claim to formally measure employee engagement on a regular basis via an organization-wide survey, and have specific initiatives to address their findings. This research also found that 85% of organizations indicate that they are either currently measuring employee engagement or have plans to do so in the near future. The question is not one of if an organization should gather feedback, but how the organization gathers feedback.

How Are We Measuring the Employee Experience?

With the advancement of technology, gathering feedback is easier today than it has ever been. But, with this advantage comes concerns. First, are we really measuring what is going on in the organization? Or are we, as one HR Executive commented in our annual review of HR practices, “just measuring for the sake of measuring, because we know we’re supposed to, with no real intended results?”

According to our study, traditional employee surveys, despite what some survey firms may claim, don’t seem to be going away anytime soon—at least according to Human Resources professionals. Yet, at the same time, many indicate that gathering feedback more frequently would allow them to address current concerns. In addition to (or in place of) the annual survey, a number of the organizations in our yearly review indicate that they have considered either replacing or supplementing the annual employee engagement survey with what has become known as an employee pulse survey or spot survey. However, according to the study, many of these HR professionals had not considered the implications.

You can find the results of the study’s HR survey practices in this whitepaper, titled Best Practice Guide: From Always-on to Annual Employee Engagement Surveys. However, let’s do a brief review of the concept of employee pulse surveys below.

What is an Employee Pulse Survey?

We refer to these instruments as “employee pulse surveys,” because they measure employee engagement levels on a frequent basis, or “take the pulse” of an organization or group.  Essentially, the pulse survey definition explains that it is a quick survey sent out to employees on a regular, shorter basis. The employee pulse surveys are helpful tools in gauging progress, warning of potential dangers, understanding trends in the employee experience, and promoting action.

In the quest to provide more frequent and valuable employee feedback, employee pulse surveys often ride the coattails of an annual employee survey (we refer to these annual surveys as “anchor surveys”), in that they serve as a great way to drill down for more specific information. Pulse surveys occur at regular or planned intervals, with planned groups, and generally involve large segments of the organization’s population.

For example, if an employee engagement survey occurs each year, and results clearly show managers aren’t taking the time to give employees feedback about their performance, the organization may implement processes that encourage (or demand) managers to provide feedback more often. Rather than waiting for the next annual or semi-annual employee survey to understand whether these actions have been effective, a pulse survey can be administered more frequently to address a specific question, as well as other critical items identified by the annual employee survey.

Many organizations that focus on understanding their Employee Experience (EX) use the results from annual employee surveys to identify three to five specific actions that need to be undertaken to improve the overall employee experience. They create and execute action plans, and follow up with a pulse survey to gauge progress. Pulse surveys take the value obtained from the annual employee engagement survey and break it into smaller, actionable chunks. However, due to their limited length, employee pulse surveys may not provide the comprehensive, complete insight that an organization desires.

Are Employee Pulse Surveys Right for Your Organization?

Employee pulse surveys are effective tools for determining progress on specific initiatives undertaken as a result of a larger survey. By comparing the results of one employee survey to a previous survey, an organization can effectively measure whether a change has occurred and whether the actions taken are getting results. Employee pulse surveys are designed to get specific about items identified by the annual employee engagement survey. Because they are assessing the same general population (or sub-sets of that population), an organization can identify changes or trends for specific manager groups, teams, functions, or divisions.

Employee pulse surveys can be tremendously effective in your feedback arsenal. However, before implementing pulse surveys, there are 2 questions to ask:

  1. Are we prepared to act on the employee feedback?
  2. Is the employee pulse survey positioned as a supplement or a replacement for our annual survey?

Are We Prepared to Act on the Employee Feedback?

Perhaps the greatest advantage of employee pulse surveys is also its greatest disadvantage—frequency. Through pulsing, an organization is asking for employee feedback, while telling its employees, “We heard what you said and care enough to see how we’re doing.” Employees hear, “The company intends to act on the feedback we provide, so we can expect to see some changes.”

While this is all very positive for an organization inclined to act on the feedback, a company that continues to survey on issues, but does little to create change, might be doing more harm than good. Surveying too frequently, particularly with little or no action, is more detrimental than not surveying at all. The key? Employee pulse surveys should not be administered any more frequently than you have the ability to implement action plans.

What is the Purpose of Your Employee Pulse Survey?

Some organizations, often survey providers, propose replacing the annual employee engagement survey with a more frequent employee pulse survey. Can this strategy work? Sure, and for some companies, this might be the right answer. But, while pulse surveys have gained increasing popularity, due largely to the availability of technology, there are limitations. Remember, employee pulse surveys are not comprehensive, in that they are limited in the number of questions/items addressed, or the groups being surveyed. The response data should be considered as additional insight into understanding the overall employee experience.

We recommend that a pulse survey “supplement” the annual employee engagement survey in order to gauge progress on engagement initiatives. Although regular pulse surveys address the need for more frequent feedback, organizations that replace the annual employee engagement survey with more frequent employee pulse surveys generally sacrifice data quality and lack the ability to completely understand the employee experience.

Getting the Right Survey Balance

When implementing your employee engagement strategy, remember that balance is key. Your employees want to be heard, and pulse surveys provide the necessary frequency while the annual employee engagement survey provides the depth. Be strategic in your approach, keeping in mind not to survey any more frequently than you can take action. Remember, your employee experience will drive your customer experience. That makes understanding the employee experience all the more important. When your employees take pulse surveys, they feel more heard and respected in your team, which drives higher productivity and improved team performance.

Employee Pulse Survey