The Devilish Details of Workplace Culture: Where Science and Practice Need to Reunite

I am Paul Mastrangelo, a Principal Strategist at CultureIQ. I want my clients to succeed, and I partner with them to build a culture among employees that improves company performance and the working environment. I see so many smart dedicated leaders act based on common thinking about talent management, but they are being misinformed. I want to change that with this blog series.  

Values are a key part of culture, but company value statements rarely are. This installment explains the confusion about which values hold more weight: the leadership team’s framed values or what employees experience as unwritten values. I bet you know my answer. Here is the logic you can use to explain how value statements got confused with culture and how to align the two.  

Your Company Values Are NOT Your Culture 

Edgar Schein, the preeminent culture researcher and consultant, said that a company’s culture has three components: observable artifacts, semi-conscious values, and subconscious assumptions. To him values are employees’ interpretations for why observable things happen, and any conflict between stated values and actual values is a key to understanding subconscious assumptions. This is difficult to explain, however, because business leaders see their culture as being equivalent to their value statements. If leaders publicly promoted A, B, and C as values, they are surprised when I reject the idea of measuring culture by asking survey questions that say “Do we value A? What about B? And C?” Let me illustrate why your stated values are not your culture. 

Years ago a financial organization asked me to explore subtle impediments to diversity. The company had very visible artifacts (advertisements, global locations, ERGs) that proudly displayed diversity among their employees. Diversity was a stated company value, specifically because having diverse employee experiences made for better connections with customers. The surprise was that employees readily accepted that this same company was led mostly by white men – a contradiction that was obvious, rarely verbalized, and defended by most employees when challenged. What gives?  

The value of diversity was observable in many ways, but this company’s senior leaders particularly valued diversity as international experience, specifically multi-year developmental assignments abroad that were predominantly filled by white men, giving them a resume demonstrating performance in globally diverse positions. Thus, having male senior leadership was excusable because performance mattered most, and diversity in the form of international experience was the unquestionable means to that end. Unfortunately, and unintentionally, women and minorities were less likely to accumulate the international experience deemed to be a requirement for executive level positions. One unwritten value (international experience) was eclipsing another publicly stated value (diversity), and many employees defended this because the subconscious assumption was that white men just happened to be more qualified!  

When a company truly values a behavioral outcome, it affects how the company hires, promotes, and rewards employees. Processes that lead to a valued behavioral outcome are funded, staffed, and defended by leaders. When the company fails to live up to a truly valued behavioral outcome, it removes impediments, penalizes those responsible, and tracks metrics to course correct. These nonverbal actions show employees what is really valued – regardless of what’s framed on the walls.  

Certainly, it is possible that a company has a value statement that is backed up by nonverbal actions that demonstrate how valued they really are. In practice, however, backing up words with actions is uncommon. As Patrick Lencioni explains in his book The Advantage, many companies create value statements that sound good, but don’t deliver. Some choose to promote ubiquitous values, like “delighting customers.” Because all companies want to delight customers, the statement can easily be overlooked. Some companies create value statements that are overly aspirational, such as “Passion.” Seriously, is anyone getting fired for not being passionate enough? Some companies have values that Lencioni calls accidental, meaning that they are truly descriptive of employee behavior, but not tested to see if they are prescriptive. For example, your employees may do anything to delight customers, but is that profitable and scalable? For these reasons value statements rarely clarify proper behavior or help make decisions. The most egregious example of façade values is probably Enron; the bankrupt company’s prior success was due to years of accounting fraud, but its stated values were Communication, Respect, Integrity, and Excellence.  

Don’t Be Enron 

If your company never invested in identifying and espousing company values, it still has a culture. A value statement is NOT a requirement. The question is whether the culture matches what leaders want and what the company needs. Of course that question also applies if your company did invest in identifying and espousing company values. The act of proclaiming values does not create a culture.  

Instead, measure what employees perceive the culture to be, and then choose the aspects that should be cultivated. You will likely realize (for better or worse) that your culture is more complex than you thought, just as my client’s culture only valued diversity if leaders believed it improved performance. That fact would never have been discovered by merely asking “To what extent do we encourage workplace diversity?” Imagine what you might be missing if you only focus on what you hope is your culture.  

This article in a part of a blog series. Also see The Devilish Details of Workplace Culture: Engagement versus Culture