Why Defining Company Culture on Values is Risky
(And What to Do Instead)

This Way or That Way?
Published: July 27, 2020
Last Modified: November 06, 2020
By: Dr. Matt Marturano
Image Credit: iStock.com/BrianAJackson

Defining Company Culture

Company culture, or organizational culture, has been a topic of interest for quite some time. And for good reason. According to Aperian Global, "A positive company culture that has high levels of employee loyalty, satisfaction, and productivity is directly linked to customer loyalty and satisfaction, and more importantly, profit and revenue growth." It certainly sounds important! But what exactly does it mean to have a "positive company culture"?

It turns out that the definition of company culture can be fairly elusive. While many may attempt a definition based on attitudes or shared values, we feel these kinds of definitions are nebulous enough so as to ultimately render them untenable. For one thing, they leave too much open to subjective opinion and hidden biases. Secondly, values tend to be finicky and difficult to satisfy to the liking of multiple stakeholders. They can also be slippery because values-based culture statements don't circumscribe anything concrete that one can point to and say, "There it is!" Most importantly, values-based definitions of organizational culture do not yield anything that is measurable.

Behavior Based Culture Definition

This is why we recommend a definition of company culture that is based on behaviors. The ways that people act within your organization- what they are saying, what they are doing, and whether they are actually doing what they saying- are plainly observable by all. Behavioral observation does not require raising anyone up to a privileged position of being the arbiter of other people's hidden inner states. It does not centralize power and control, thus reducing the risk of these being abused, whether wittingly or unwittingly.

Plus- it simplifies things.

Under a values-based definition of company culture, we inevitably find ourselves contending with an unwieldy "black box" that spans the gap between values and behaviors. It raises all sorts of messy questions about why people are- or are not- behaving in ways which are consistent with the stated culture of the organization. What is worse- it leads us into the temptation to deploy management techniques in order to compel people into complying with the culture, which almost certainly will result in unintended consequences.

At the end of the day, we can't enforce values as a company culture in the same way we might a dress code. People will value whatever they will value. Attempting to impose attitudes and values upon others will- at best- only result in a kind of cultural façade in the workplace. It's the type of situation that would be familiar to any cat-owner who tries to keep their furry friend off of the new couch. Sure- the cat might obey when it knows you are watching, but as soon as it hears you close the door and drive away in the car, guess what?

Yep- it's time for some serious couch lounging!

Example - Culture of Responsiveness

At Orchid Holistic Search, we uphold a culture of responsiveness. When our clients or candidates reach out to us for something, we make sure to respond in a timely and complete fashion. This is an example of a results-based culture that leaves no room for fudging when it comes to evaluation. When a call or email comes in, there is the timestamp. When the response goes out, there again is the timestamp. The contents of the communications are right there in plain sight in order to see if the response addressed the query. This is why, at the end of the day, we can definitively say if we displayed responsiveness, or if we came up short.

With this type of setup, the question of why one is responsive in any given situation need not enter into the picture. This, in turn, leaves an individual more flexibility in terms of where to find the intrinsic motivation to live up to the culture standard. Perhaps somebody is being responsive because they value building relationships. Maybe it's simply because they want to look good. In the final analysis, the "what" is more important than the "why" when the goal is to create positive, measurable results.

Purpose of Company Values

So what are organizational values good for? Well first of all, they are essential in making a statement regarding what your company is all about. What is more, values help immensely in orienting an organizational entity to the world at large, and are indispensable when making a determination of alignment with other organizations under consideration for partnership or affiliation. Values are good for defining aims and intentions, whereas behaviors are they key to actualizing outcomes.

To think of running a business organization as an estate, company values are the purview of the porter, while company culture is the domain of the groundskeeper. Both are quite necessary to running a functional household, but putting the hedge trimmers in the hands of the doorperson, while perhaps yielding some interesting garden art, may leave your guests without a proper reception, and prone to wandering into your neighbor's yard.

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