For start-up founders, establishing and implementing cultural values in your organization is a critical milestone in your leadership journey. Yet, when you ask a random employee about your company’s values, it’s often surprising how few can actually articulate them. Why is that?
In case we haven’t met, 👋 I’m Angelica, an Operating Partner at Point72 Ventures. I’ve been a cultural champion throughout my career, from creating and rolling out cultural values at a start-up to helping drive culture at a public company that dedicated significant resources to instill cultural values throughout the organization. I care a lot about how we treat others, which is why I studied ethics and sociopolitical philosophy.
Over the past several weeks, I spoke with founders, HR leaders, learning scientists, and culture champions to explore where we tend to go wrong when creating and incorporating cultural values in companies.
I believe that when cultural values accurately reflect an organization, they can shepherd productivity, a sense of belonging, shared purpose, and engagement. When they don’t, it can disappoint employees, erode their trust, and leave them feeling like they don’t belong. This article explores where cultural values tend to fail (so you can avoid them) and tactics you can use to weave cultural values into the fabric of your company.
What are cultural values
For the purpose of this article, cultural values are an articulation of behaviors for how we believe and agree that we should engage in the workplace, including how we treat each other, how we communicate, and how we make decisions. They are the foundation for how we will accomplish our goals and shared purpose at work. When lived out successfully, cultural values should facilitate trust, purpose, and a sense of belonging.
Where values tend to go wrong
Here are some common pitfalls I’ve seen detract from establishing effective cultural values:
- Creating values on day one: Rushing to codify values can mean they become outdated quickly. It takes time to build rapport and relationships with a new team. It takes even longer to be able to step back to extrapolate and articulate how people are showing up to work and making decisions. Just like early product development, what your team values and how they work together will rapidly evolve early on.
- Set it and forget it: You have a great rollout plan with a slide deck and a dedicated all-hands meeting—you even hired a local sign painter to paint them on your wall. Nice job, but that’s not enough. Your team will not remember them in two months if they’re not incorporated into the everyday experience.
- Values don’t reflect reality: Stated values that are out of touch with the reality of a workplace can be counterproductive. This typically happens when leadership crafts values in a vacuum, or when values are too aspirational. When only leaders develop values, they may reflect leadership’s subculture but not the experience of the entire organization. Aspirational values that don’t reflect reality can feel hollow, disingenuous and lose meaning over time. Additionally, I think aspirational values can contribute to employee churn when people who were attracted to the stated values find the culture is different than expected.
- Failure to hold people–particularly leaders–accountable: I think most people have seen companies make exceptions for the jerk who is great at their job. However, when we don’t see people held accountable to agreed-upon behaviors, cultural values are merely lip service. Actions speak louder than words, so organizations that fail to hold team members accountable are implicitly prioritizing performance over cultural values. It can also create organizational inefficiencies or duplicate work because leaders veer away from the agreed-upon path for doing things. Failing to hold people accountable can erode trust, a core element of a functional organization.
- Overly complex phrasing can make cultural values hard to remember and difficult to incorporate into everyday conversation: If they don’t sound like everyday language, then they won’t come up in everyday conversation, so it’s important to express your values in accessible, colloquial terms. Another common mistake is having more than seven values; don’t make them harder to remember than a telephone number—our generation already struggles with that.
Tips to get your values to stick
Here are some effective methods I’ve seen to establish and incorporate cultural values into organizations:
- Capture your current culture: While creating values can be initiated top-down or bottom-up, aim to create values that reflect who you are today, not who you wish you were. Intentional or not, happy with it or not, all companies have a culture. The hard part is distilling it. To overcome this hurdle, solicit feedback from a diverse group of stakeholders across seniority, departments, and locations. Whether your start-up is three months old or you’re a new executive joining an existing company, take at least six months to understand the organic behaviors before rushing to codify them.
- Describe what good looks like (and what not to do): Include a few lines below each value that describe what behaviors or actions embody that value and which behaviors do not, or what it looks like to take it too far. If “Radical Candor” is one of your values, include a description such as, “We give direct feedback with clear asks for what we’d like to see change. We give feedback as quickly as possible. We abstain from being overly critical or harsh.” Give your team a toolkit for how to act values-aligned. For example, introduce a standard framework so the team gives feedback in a consistent format that is aligned with the “candor” value.
- Turn your values into a shared language that you use repeatedly and constantly: Make your cultural values easy to remember (hashtags and emojis help.) Create a #shoutouts or #praise channel in your messaging app, and develop a norm where praise always ties to a value, e.g., #shoutout to Danielle for helping me troubleshoot a spreadsheet and always being willing to jump in #rowtogether. Leverage cultural values as part of your shared language and use them as a vehicle for change management and when providing the “why” behind big decisions.
- Build cultural values into the employee life cycle: From hiring to quarterly engagement surveys to semi-annual performance reviews, values should be surfaced and present in every process. Follow the marketing rule of seven – it takes seven touchpoints for something to stick. In hiring, review values with candidates and ask, “Which value resonates with you most?” and “Which value do you need to grow into?” In performance reviews, take the descriptions of good behaviors and solicit feedback from a leader’s peers, manager, and direct reports for a full picture. Set forward-looking goals for how to embody values, don’t just retroactively assess them. Hold people accountable and manage up or out when they don’t embody the values. Remember, the worst thing you can do is hang on to a culture corroder.
- Identify and designate culture leaders throughout your org: HR can own the lifecycle, but you need a trusted person in the room who brings the culture lens to conversations when no one’s watching. Cultural values are an internal product that needs ownership and upkeep after launch. Someone must be trained and designated responsible for tending to your cultural values. They ask, “Are we achieving our goals in a way that upholds our values?” This is as valuable a perspective to bring to the table as other forms of expertise. This role can successfully be embodied by generalists, cross-functional leaders, chiefs of staff, GMs, and OKR champions because they tend to have established trust across multiple teams.
- Own up when you screw up: No matter how much you promote cultural values, if you act counter to them even once, your team will notice and hold on to that. We’ve all had bad days that prevented us from bringing our A-game to work. Values tend to be pressure tested in high-stress moments. If you bungle giving feedback or get caught on your phone in a meeting, get ahead of it and acknowledge it. You will likely gain more trust and credibility when you take the time to acknowledge your mistake.
- Evolve your values as your company grows: Remove values that no longer serve or feel aspirational and add those that reflect an effective behavior not yet captured. Update supporting language to clarify behaviors and intentions. Solicit feedback from the entire organization to understand if company-wide day-to-day decisions reflect the values. Take off the pressure of perfection and normalize iteration.
As you develop your cultural values, ask yourself, “What are you willing to sacrifice to uphold your values?” Is it really a key value if you’re willing to put revenue or business outcomes before it? It’s ok if the answer is yes, but then it probably isn’t a core value to your company and shouldn’t be painted on the wall. When cultural values don’t reflect reality, it can contribute to people feeling disappointed, disengaged, and like they don’t belong; it can erode psychological safety and trust, which are table stakes for any company.
I hope this framing helps you design cultural values that resonate and reflect your team and foster trust, purpose, belonging, and productivity. To get them to stick, designate owners, keep people accountable, and create multiple touch points in the everyday employee experience. And of course, don’t be afraid to change them to reflect who your team becomes over time.
Please reach out if you…
- Leverage other tactics to help get cultural values to stick
- Created meaningful KPIs to measure the impact of culture
- Have a great way to regularly manage and discuss OKRs