We see organizations carve out their values so intricately on their entrances, put it up on their office walls, display them in the cafeterias, and at times in their meeting rooms. Companies spend hours writing, thinking, overthinking, and deciding their core values. Many companies organize value awards, seminars, discussions to show the importance of values and what it means to them.
But what do these values really mean?
Core values are the fundamental beliefs of a person or organization. These guiding principles dictate behavior and can help people understand the difference between right and wrong. Core values also help companies to determine if they are on the right path and fulfilling their goals by creating an unwavering guide.
But to be an Unwavering guide, the Values need to be clear, meaningful, and concise, so that they are understood, remembered, internalized, and followed.
Values need to be clear
Like Uber’s core values earlier included phrases like “Superpumped”, “Always be hustlin” and “toe-steppin”. These were earlier decided by former CEO, Travis Kalanick, and senior executives, but these values somewhere had a disconnect between how management saw the company and the day-to-day experiences of employees, resulting in not so great company culture. As Susan Fowler wrote in her famous blog post, that Uber had become a very highly competitive style environment in which people were undermining their superiors, peers, and reports to get ahead. This highly competitive and unethical work environment meant that toxic behaviors were overlooked or ignored. Soon, Traves Kalanick stepped down as the CEO and the first thing the new CEO, did was to introduce new core values
So it is of utmost importance that the Values are clear so that they are easy to understand and can guide the organization towards the right path in fulfilling their goals. But the real question is –
Do the values actually serve these purposes? Do they really guide people while actually taking decisions?
Integrity was one of Enron’s values.
Trust and Transparency were Satyam’s values
Likewise, Theranos, United Breweries, Nirav Modi Jewels were all found with great values & supposedly integrity. They would have defined their values after putting in a lot of thought and conscientiousness as all companies do. Then why did these companies go so wrong in adhering to their values?
This leads us to the question
Is drafting a clear, definitive values and communicating and reiterating them to the employees enough?
The answer as a lot of you would have guessed is “No”. It is not enough. The values of the company will not start flowing in your DNA the moment you put it up on your walls. Every day, each one of us needs to act in a way to conserve and uphold it. Values are nothing but a product of your culture. It is an end result of what you sow, the work that you put in to create a culture.
But before that, let’s understand
How values are formed
When a company starts, at the initial stage the philosophy of the founders or the CEO is what runs down to all the employees. It is at a nascent stage, there is no HR to point out the values, to drive the culture, to put it up on the walls.
The initial team is closely knit, driven by the mission and vision of the company and so the values are nothing but
- How they treat each other
- What/how decisions are made
- What kind of people they hire, promote or fire
As and when new people join in, they learn from what is the common practice. At start-ups, there is no way people are told what the values are, but somehow, when they work together in a team, either they become out of sync and leave, or they get molded in the culture and adopt the values.
When Netflix started, much before they documented their culture, Marc Randolf (Netflix’s CEO) writes that “Netflix’s culture, at least originally wasn’t a result of careful planning — of aspirational principles or cultural manifestos. How it was a reflection of the shared values and behavior of the founders. How we trusted each other, worked hard, as has zero patience for traditional corporate bullshit”
He says “Radical Honesty, Freedom and Responsibility were phenomenal ideals, but for our first couple of years, they weren’t really written down”
Values Transformation — Post the Start-up Phase
Any company has these two ways to go about it — write down the values and
- Consciously “Value the Values” and see to it that they are imbibed into the work culture
- Write down the values and forget about it
1. Consciously Value the Values
Today Netflix’s culture document is much sought after. Sheryl Sandberg (COO, Facebook) has called it one of the most important documents ever to come out of Silicon Valley. This was because the management and the HR made efforts to conserve their culture even after the company started growing from 50 employees to hundreds and thousands.
It is nothing but the CEO and founders like Reed Hastings’ unwavering determination to stick to their beliefs, philosophy, and values because of which the culture still thrives despite the growth and influx of so many people.
2. Write down the values and forget about it
Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” notes that “As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its success. In response, the board members decide- it’s time to grow up. This place needs some professional management. The company begins to hire MBAs and seasoned executives from blue-chip companies.” People often go ballistic with the lack of controls, policies, and feels what their previous organization had has to be implemented here.
Sometimes while the companies create order, they kill entrepreneurial spirit. In the process, the enthusiastic unique start-up values transform into just another company, with nothing special to recommend. They introduce, mix, and match, take cue from their competitors and induce new genes into their system which might not be compatible with your DNA. But no one takes heed to this.
But what do we do then? Fresh ideas, innovative thinking, experienced talent is the most important thing when an organization is growing, we need seasoned executive to take the company to new levels. Hence it becomes even more important to understand what organization values are and select competent employees who match with it.
Actual Values vs. Written Values
Workplace and employees are a reflection of what the values are. Any company I visit, I have a habit of looking at their values and then observe their employees interact and the general feel of the offices. It tells a lot about the company.
Like I came across a company that had ‘transparency’ as a value, but the offices have huge cabins, covered cubicles, people don’t seem to look at each other while working. But having Transparency as a values sound good.
One of the companies had “Equality” as it’s values and when I entered their office, I could see they had different chairs for different designations.
Of course, in both the scenarios, the norms are not at all wrong, It is completely fine to have these basics, however, there is just a mismatch of the written values & perceived values there.
Patty McCord (Author of the book “Power” and an HR consultant) recounts in an HBR article about her interaction when she visited a start-up for consulting
“I visited a hot start-up in San Francisco. It had 60 employees in an open loft-style office with a foosball table, two pool tables, and a kitchen, where a chef cooked lunch for the entire staff. As the CEO showed me around, he talked about creating a fun atmosphere. At one point I asked him what the most important value for his company was. He replied, “Efficiency.”
“OK,” I said. “Imagine that I work here, and it’s 2:58 PM. I’m playing an intense game of pool, and I’m winning. I estimate that I can finish the game in five minutes. We have a meeting at 3:00. Should I stay and win the game or cut it short for the meeting?”
“You should finish the game,” he insisted. I wasn’t surprised; like many tech start-ups, this was a casual place, where employees wore hoodies and brought pets to work, and that kind of casualness often extends to punctuality. “Wait a second,” I said. “You told me that efficiency is your most important cultural value. It’s not efficient to delay a meeting and keep coworkers waiting because of a pool game. Isn’t there a mismatch between the values you’re talking up and the behaviors you’re modeling and encouraging?”
When companies are molding a corporate culture. This is a typical problem where there’s a premium on casualness that can run counter to the high-performance culture leaders want to create. Leaders often get carried away with whats is “in”. Everyone wants to follow Amazon & Google, right? But we have to go beyond the bare aesthetics of the office and understand the reason behind their culture.
If someone would have visited Amazon’s office in 1998 (5 years into company formation), It was still a big name then. One would have expected, a grand office, with great furniture a typical Silicon Valley start-up Office. But rather it was described as “warped and creaky”. “The carpeting was stained; the partitions used to separate the cubicles were dirty and torn, There were multiple people per cubicle, the tables were made of recycled doors.” When asked about the tables with recycled doors, Jeff Bezos explained this “It’s a deliberate message, Everyone in the company has them. It’s a way of saying that we spend money on things that affect our customers, not on things that don’t” “He was famous for his “two-pizza meetings” the idea being that if it took more than two pizzas to feed a group of people working on a problem, then you had hired too many people.”
This shows the Values right there — Customer Centricity
When Google started out, one of the core values was “Don’t Be Evil” which was replaced with a more positive and less amusing “do the right thing”. One more value is “You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer”. This shows a great deal about the company, how the culture is driven by freedom and responsibility. The thinking areas in the office symbolizes freedom to decide their own work schedule but also puts the responsibility on the employee to do the right thing — use it to increase productivity.
Today, people get inspired by large pool tables, gaming zones, gyms, etc. but Google and Amazon incorporated these in their culture with proper messaging and deliberate placement to symbolize their values. That’s why employees know how to use it to increase productivity rather than just perceiving it as fun activities. Just building the recreational section at your office does not create values.
Then how do we ensure that the values that we have written are followed and are actually true in spirit?
The answer is:
Value the values!
Employees will always tend to do what is appreciated and acknowledged. This is governed by these two principles
- Lead by Example
- Reward or Punish (with no exceptions)
1. Lead by Example
Value propagation is always a top-down approach. When one starts, the company is just an idea, the founders’ dream. It transforms into the vision, mission, and values of the company after it has been set up. The Company has to show the values themselves for the employees to see that the company truly believes in them.
Arianna Huffington, from the co-founder of The Huffington Post, the founder and CEO of Thrive Global says “My own leadership style, and that of the other leaders at HuffPost, is very much like being in the middle of the circle, rather than at the top of the mountain shouting down,” She believes in doing and showing how & “walking the talk” rather than just “talk”.
As published in Inc. magazine“It is clear that the wildly successful companies — some of which are regularly featured in Fortune magazine’s annual “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for having high trust, high employee engagement, and low turnover — are guided by visionary leaders who walk the talk.”
Take the example of Theranos, a company formed by Elizabeth Holmes (who was once lauded as “The Next Steve Jobs”, In 2015, Forbes had named Holmes the youngest and wealthiest self-made female billionaire in America) and run by her & Sunny Balwani. John Carreyrou, in his book Bad Blood, documented accounts describing Elizabeth Holmes’ unwillingness to revise the original micro-Lab specs and her reported tendency to shut off whoever tried to provide realistic feedback or solutions to the technical problems Theranos was facing. These detailed accounts show a pattern of behaviors consistent with a distorted motivational and cognitive state. She wanted to hear only progress and was not ready to look at feedbacks and real issues. A lot of top Management, want to just hear that they are right. The whole company was just a product of what her philosophy was.
Employees notice everything, and what they see in a leader, it affects how they perform, too. It does not matter how well you articulate ideas about values and culture if you don’t model and reward behavior that aligns with those goals.
Whatever traits the Leaders have, will be reprogrammed and in a way replicated in the top layer of Managers and they, in turn, will treat their teams similarly.
This is how your values will flow.
2. Reward and Punishment
One of the Motivation theories — “Vroom’s expectancy theory” assumes that behavior results from conscious choices. Employees tend to make choices either to maximize rewards or to minimize punishments.
This means that the management has to distinguish between people who follow values and the ones who do not. Non-adherence to the values has to be dealt with. If any mismatch is tolerated, slowly employees will lose interest in that value. In a way, the company is unconsciously but constantly teaching its employees what the real values are in the process of making every small decision like who to appreciate, promote, punish, tolerate, hire, and fire. Companies are constantly programming their employees on what to value by setting examples by making people decisions.
To sum it up!
The values are not what is written on the walls but rather a reflection of how a company operates. They are very personal and should be customized and tailormade, and yes spent time on, discussed & debated but at the same time, any policy that we implement any person we hire, any person we tolerate should be a result of the ethos, the beliefs that we stand for. Sure HR’s role is very important to understand these ethos, beliefs and propagate these values to employees in the right way, however at the same time, the decisions taken at each level should be the best way to make employees believe in what the HR says.
If you look closely, this does not have to be an independent process but should be rather ingrained in how companies deal with situations. This can not be learned by researching other companies, but rather introspecting within, understanding, and valuing what who already have and what really matters.
If you do this right, no sessions or seminars will be needed, each and every employee will be molded in effortlessly.
At Svatantra MHFC, we did not have written values till 10 years of operations, but the values were known, ingrained in each one of us. We just had to spell it out then, it never seemed forced or feigned when we did that.
Rather than declaring the values as is, our CEO in fact asked employees to come up with what Svatantra MHFC stands for. All the employees, irrespective of what level they were, discussed and came up with Six values. It was never something we proposed to follow, but rather what actually we were and define it.
So the values are more in line with what we believe in and how we deal with situations.
If you do this right, no sessions or seminars will be needed, each and every employee will be molded in effortlessly.