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 statements 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. 

Learn how organizations can use competency models to build their culture through 360-degree Feedback.

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3 Crucial Elements That Drive Employee Success

Training Female Smiling

At DecisionWise, we are in the business of driving employee success through experience and feedback. When working with organizations, we focus on their employee experiences, which we define as an organization’s culture understood through the eyes of its employees. Put differently, the employee experience is the way in which employees perceive and are impacted by their work, their supervisors and leaders, and the other various touchpoints they encounter within and around an organization.

When I first started writing and talking about employee success, I tried using a definition that equated the employee experience with what I called “deliberate culture.” This definition, however, proved to be too narrow and a bit over simplistic. Instead, our ongoing research at DecisionWise has led us to discover that there are three, vital interrelated concepts, of which the employee experience is just one component.

These three elements are:

1. Culture

Culture can readily be understood as “the way things are done around a particular place or within a certain group.” Organizations, civic leagues, clubs, families, etc., all have unique cultures. When addressing an organization that has employees, we define culture as those values, norms, guiding beliefs, principles, and common understandings that are shared among members of the organization as the proper way to behave, think, and approach the organization’s work and mission. An organization’s culture is either organic, such that it is created by a myriad of interactions with little shaping by senior leaders.  Or, alternatively, culture can be designed and managed – by the organization’s senior leaders – to support and sustain the organization. 

2. The Employee Experience

The employee experience is the impact an organization’s culture has on its individual employees. The employee experience is that intersection where an individual bumps into the organization’s culture, either for good or bad. When dealing with an employee’s experience, we are seeking their perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs about what it is like to work at a particular organization or company. Again, the experience tells us how the organization’s shared norms and values are impacting the employee, and when we aggregate the employees’ responses from surveys we send them, we uncover an array of insights that help us know how we might change or strengthen the culture.

3. Employee Engagement 

Employee engagement is the positive emotional response employees have to their individual employee experiences. If alignment between the employee experience and the individual’s personality, viewpoints, values, etc., is high, then the individual will bring more of themselves to the organization’s mission and purpose. They will engage in moving the organization forward in a constructive manner. Thus, employee engagement is an outcome; an outcome that is derived from both the organization’s culture and the way the organization’s culture is experienced by its employees. 

For years, many of us in this space spoke of an umbrella concept that we called “employee engagement.” The challenge with this approach was that it gave the impression that employee engagement was something you worked on independent of your culture or the corresponding employee experience. What we now better understand is that these three elements do not exist independent from each other, and that the first two elements are drivers of the third element.

For us here at DecisionWise, being precise with our definitions has helped us better deliver value to our clients. We have improved our ability to both measure employee success at various levels and to learn precisely where our efforts have the most impact in growing engagement.  I deliberately use the word “grow” in this context. Employee success is not something you build; it is something you grow by carefully cultivating your culture.

Employee engagement is grown and cultivated

How does an organization improve its cultivation efforts? Improvement is found by consistently measuring employee experiences at various points in time and at various stages within the organization. Fundamentally, it’s about taking the time to listen, then seeking to understand, and then acting with genuine intent to improve the culture so that employees can thrive and bring their best selves to work.   

Nowadays, we spend much of our time helping our clients understand their cultures by providing them with the data, insights, and recommendations they need  to build the right culture for their organization. The reward?  Successful business outcomes that are driven by highly engaged employees who are benefitting from rewarding and fulfilling employee experiences. 


How to Increase Connection with Culture and Trust

Culture could be described as the social operating system of the organization, the underlying environment that shapes social interaction and shapes the emotions involved in the company and its work toward a specific end. Simply put, it’s “the way we do things around here.” The culture of Apple is based on beauty and creating incredible experiences, while the culture at Google is built around personal autonomy and solving the world’s problems. Employees connect around those cultural assumptions. They are a fabric that everyone can grab a piece of, binding the organization together and building the overall Employee Experience.

If your organization were a person, how would you describe it? Conservative? Edgy, with multiple body piercings and tattoos? Compassionate? Hardworking? Fun? Stuffy? How would you evaluate its culture? If we think of organizations as people, we get a clearer idea of the implications of culture. Employees do think of their organizations as organisms (there’s a reason both words share the same Latin root). They do have personalities, needs, and desires. Culture is a potent force that can become a driver of engagement on all levels…if it’s done right. People must connect with that culture, whatever it might be.

Doing Culture Right

How do you do culture right? I’ll try to lend a bit of wisdom to a gigantic topic. First of all, culture depends on narrative and story. What is the narrative of the organization? How did it begin? What were the motivations behind its creation and what are its motivations today? How does it impact the world? How do its customers feel about it? What’s its purpose? Do the employees play a role as custodians of the organizational story?

Download: Sample Employee Value Proposition Survey and Report

At one extreme you have Apple. At the other you find companies that develop software offshore. These organizations rely on contract programmers who often dwell in places like Lithuania and Russia. They’ve never met, often don’t speak the same language, and have little shared culture. So, while they’re great at following instructions, there’s no collective story that connects them. These virtual teams will never surpass their instructions, never innovate based on collective inspiration. It’s not in their DNA.

Another factor is pride. Is there pride in the organization? Any organization must have pride in its people, mission, and identity. History and brand also matter to culture. Where has the organization been? How has it lived up to its stated values in the past? What is its brand promise? What words are widely associated with its brand according to surveys of its customers?

The formation of a strong culture also requires the placement of “anchors”—social, intellectual, environmental, inspirational—that serve to consistently communicate the culture to employees. These could be things like Google’s free cafeteria food or 20 percent personal time policy—ever-present features of the office that send a specific message about the nature of the workplace and the employee’s place in it.

Physical signs that reflect the personality of the organization are some of the most powerful anchors. No, we’re not talking about Ping-Pong tables; we’re talking about meaningful pieces of the physical space that make a statement about the nature and character of the workplace and the people who work in it. These are satisfaction elements, not cultural artifacts. In some companies, that might mean edgy urban warehouse design with exposed concrete and corrugated metal. In others, it might mean an open, bullpen-style office where brightly colored couches and “playpens” have replaced cubicles.

Take audio-products maker Skullcandy. A few years back, after they went public, management realized that the company was losing the youthful, streetwise aspects of the culture that got them where they are today. They needed to figure out their new corporate values and determine their narrative, physical environment…and the cultural artifacts that would embody their culture in that environment.

They created an amazing workplace environment based on a hip skate culture, outfitted it with things like functional skate ramps and skateboarding memorabilia, and crafted a culture built around performance-based flexibility, an open environment for collaboration, and lots of incentives. Today, it’s not uncommon to see Skullcandy employees skateboarding around the offices, fully connected to a culture that “gets” who they are. Skullcandy also allows its employees to take a half day off each time it snows more than a few inches—a regular occurrence in its home base, the beautiful mountain town of Park City, Utah.

This doesn’t mean that your company culture has to mimic the hip cultures we just described. In fact, for many organizations, a shift toward similar practices as those we described would be seen as disingenuous—at the very least, out of place and inappropriate. Perhaps most important, culture must be authentic, and employees should be able to play a role in shaping it.

Imagine the clumsiest corporate attempts at creating employee culture you’ve ever heard about—theme cruises, the famous Hawaiian-shirt-day scene from Office Space—and it’s not hard to imagine the internal monologue of employees dealing with management’s attempts to “keep it real.” Lame. Clueless. They just don’t get us at all. Cue the eye roll and knock some points off the engagement score.

Download: Employee Engagement Survey

If culture is to be a tool for connection, then it can’t be akin to one of those awful faux downtown “entertainment districts” you find in some cities. You know the ones: collections of dining and entertainment venues organized into a streetscape that was designed by committee to look “edgy” and “urban.” They’re awful. They’re the furthest thing from a real urban district like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg or LA’s Silverlake. And everyone who goes there knows it.

Inauthentic, canned culture does more harm than having no culture at all. It tells employees that not only does management not understand who you are and what you care about, management would rather hire a consulting firm to come up with a canned “culture plan” than spend time learning who you are and what you care about. Employees aren’t able to connect.

Cultural shifts work because they are based on a deep, personal understanding of what makes employees tick. When you build that kind of cultural environment, connection flourishes.

A Matter of Trust

The final core component of connection is trust. In the most engaged organizations that we work with, trust is deep and mutual. Employees trust management and vice versa. Trust is the currency of connection. It’s a basic building block of culture, because an effective culture is one that evokes thoughts like “I can trust this company to align with my tastes and interests and to represent me, and what I care about, to the larger world.” The organizations in which we all work are proxies for us; saying, “I’m an employee at [insert your company name here]” means something. For culture to be positive, employees need to trust that the organization’s “halo effect” will continue to be something they can be proud of.

Trust is the absolute knowledge that your words reflect your future actions. It’s the unquestioned belief that you will do what you say you will do; the seed for the “band of brothers” feeling that informs the best teams. It’s the unshakable belief that you have my back. It precedes connection. You can’t have connection without it. In looking at Microsoft and its stack-ranking debacle, we’ve already seen what lack of trust can do to an organization.

Because of this, trust requires evidence. I need you to prove to me that I can trust you. Once you prove to me that I can trust you, I will have a connection with you as long as you continue to meet my expectation of trust. So, trust is transactional. You must continue to perform. You have to keep earning it. Sorry, that’s the way it goes.

There is also a difference between earned trust and granted trust. Earned trust is built over time and is based on your experiences and interactions with a person or an organization. If, over time, the other party has given you reason to believe that it will back up its promises with deeds, you will begin to develop trust. Granted trust is given based merely on position or circumstance. It’s not earned. Parents grant trust to an emergency-room physician who’s working on their child. A man accused of a crime grants trust to the public defender assigned to keep him out of prison. We all grant trust to the pilot when we fly in a plane.

What destroys trust? Hypocrisy is one way to do it. Failure to do as you say—to fulfill the promise behind your words with action—is another. The loss of trust due to nonperformance can be incremental. If you drop the ball once, I might let it go. I might still trust you. If you do it more often, I might start to question whether I can trust you or not. Of course, the upshot is that if you have to question whether or not you have trust . . . you don’t have it.

In our surveys, when we’ve asked about trust, the answers often boil down to “I can trust this person to represent my interests, even when I’m not around.” That’s the level of trust that breeds a deep sense of connection, when individuals trust that their fellows will function as a “proxy self” and do what is best not only for themselves but for everyone, for the team.

Another behavior that kills trust is purely self-interested behavior, where people look out for their own interests before that of their colleagues.

Trust is Vital

Trust is vital where people are expected to put team needs above individual needs. Take the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that sportscaster Bob Costas called the worst team on paper ever to play in the World Series. Still, the seemingly overmatched Dodgers beat the superior Oakland Athletics in five games. How? In part, trust. Apart from its outstanding pitching staff, the team was mostly a ragtag collection of wild-eyed role players epitomized by the bench corps known as the Stuntmen. They joked, rode other teams’ players, and played with a reckless abandon that inspired the entire squad.

With a team composed mostly of regular Joes, the Dodgers knew they had to have one another’s backs. They had to trust that if one player failed, another would lift him up. That’s exactly what happened.

Contrast that with the U.S. Olympic basketball team’s shocking loss to Argentina in a semifinal game in the 2004 Summer Olympics. The so called Dream Team was made up of the best players from the NBA, and was expected to cruise to a gold medal. However, they were not a team in the true sense. Players who had never played together before were hastily thrown onto a squad and expected to dominate. They didn’t. They couldn’t.

How do you trust someone you’ve never worked with to have your back? How do you act with confidence that if you run to Point A, your teammate will have the ball there waiting for you? It’s no wonder that Argentina beat the U.S. team, 89–81.

Trust, like connection, needs to be cultivated and grown over time. It’s fragile. That’s why it’s so important to create an ecosystem where trust, culture, communication, and connection can flower.

Employee Engagement Survey

Creating an Autonomy Culture to Increase Employee Engagement

man autonomously working on iPad

Autonomy can be one of the most powerful pro-engagement factors for an organization. Creating an autonomy culture is crucial for employee engagement to flourish. If you’re starting from scratch in the kind of company where employees feel compelled to look over their shoulders at all times, begin by figuring out the level and type of autonomy that your people want. Are they most interested in spatial or temporal autonomy, which you can provide by allowing telecommuting or exploring scheduling possibilities? Or are they after something more esoteric, as in the respondents to a Fortinet survey in which more than 50 percent said they viewed using their own mobile devices at work as a right, rather than a privilege?1 Know what kind of autonomy matters to your workforce before you offer it.

The design and architectural firm Gensler, which has designed work spaces for such clients as the World Bank and Virgin Mobile, has found through internal research that giving employees more control over their physical environment leads to optimal performance. Their 2013 employee survey showed that employees given more control over where, when, and how to work had higher levels of innovation, satisfaction, and job performance. They also found that technology workers in “open” offices (where furniture can be reconfigured and there are few privacy barriers) actually focus better than those in traditional office configurations.2

Autonomy and the Feeling of Ownership

Having the autonomy to design a physical space—cubicle, office, work van, an area of the plant floor, even a jail cell—engenders in the employee a sense of ownership. He or she immediately does the equivalent of marking his or her territory. It’s a way of telling others, “This is my space.” Researchers at the University of Exeter School of Psychology studied more than two-thousand office workers and found that those who had control over the layout of their work space were 32 percent more productive than counterparts who lacked that control.3 That’s a meaningful difference that impacts the bottom line.

With ownership, one also claims responsibility (and the inherent accountability) for space, task, role, or assignment. Ownership is a powerful factor in creating engagement. Grant employees ownership.

Making Autonomy Meaningful

Make the autonomy you offer meaningful and authentic. The more potential risk a type of autonomy carries for the organization, the more meaningful it is to the employee. In other words, giving employees the freedom to decorate their cubicles while directing their team activities with an iron4 ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® fist means nothing. It’s an insult. Meaningful autonomy, at times, may mean that the boss trusts you with something that has the potential to embarrass the organization, or cost it money . . . making you much more likely to handle with care.

4 Ways to Create an Environment for Autonomy Culture

  1. Create an environment that offers both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can be as straightforward as performance incentives, an extra afternoon off, or profit-sharing. Intrinsic motivators demand more subtlety but can be evoked by measures that attach meaning and purpose to the work, training that fosters the desire for excellence, and other tactics that align work with positive feelings. Effective autonomy empowers employees to tap into the meaning that underlies their work. For instance, allowing an employee with small children to work from home three days a week can connect her to one of the reasons she’s working so hard—the welfare of her family—and help her be a more committed, inspired employee.
  2. Next, structure broad goals, desired outcomes, and general boundaries but allow your people to determine everything else about how they reach those goals. Let them do things their way as long as they behave and operate appropriately within the context of key relationships—and as long as they deliver. Also, create clear accountability systems that remind employees they can come and go like the wind, and dye their hair green, only as long as at the end of the quarter they have hit or surpassed their benchmarks.
  3. Provide your people with the tools and resources they need to reach your goals and theirs. Training, technology, new faces, whatever it takes. Again, this is about trust, saying, “I’m willing to invest in you and your ideas because I believe you’ll make it worthwhile.
  4. Finally, once you’ve done all this, get out of the way, and let people do their thing. If you hire people who want to give 110 percent and put them in an 85 percent environment, you’ll do your organization greater harm than by hiring 85-percenters in the first place.

Don’t grant autonomy if you as a manager aren’t prepared to follow through. Keep in mind that once employees have a taste of true autonomy, they won’t want to give it up. We’ll watch Yahoo! and see how this real-time experiment in taking away autonomy plays out.

  1. MAGIC Whitepaper

1 Ellen Messmer, “Young Employees Say BYOD a ‘Right’ Not ‘Privilege,’” CIO, June 19, 2012.
2 Gensler, 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey
3 Craig Knight and S. Alexander Haslam, “Your Place or Mine? Organizational Identification and Comfort as Mediators of Relationships Between the Managerial Control of Workspace and Employees’ Satisfaction and Well-Being,” British Journal of Management 21, no. 3 (2010).
4 H. A. Simon and W. G. Chase, “Skill in Chess,” American Scientist 61, (1973): 394–403; D. K. Simonton, “Philosophical Eminence, Beliefs, and Zeitgeist: An Individual-Generational.”