The Silent Threat To Your Company Culture
“We’re driven, we get stuff done. But it can be pretty abrasive as well, so we’re afraid to make mistakes.”
“We’re warm, friendly, and mission-driven. But at times we can be soft and miss deadlines, and I don’t think we’re good at holding anyone accountable.”
“It’s a very data-focused, engineering driven org. But we’ve been described as ‘tech-bro’s,’ and hardly anyone working here is older than 30.”
How would you describe your company culture? For many of the high performing clients that we work with, there are plenty of positives, as evidenced by the examples above. But no culture is perfect, and so when pushed, there’s nearly always a downside. As a leader, what you may not realize is that you are almost certainly doing things to reinforce the negative, as well as the positive. And with some of the recent colossal cultural failures at companies like Uber, WeWork, and others, we can clearly see how the negative, unintentional, accidental aspects of culture can cause lasting damage.
The equation for culture equals the explicit, intentional, true (or “Core”) values plus the implicit, unintentional, but also true (or “Accidental”) values. Core Values are the shared behaviors, beliefs and attributes that are intentional within an organization. For Southwest Airlines, a value like ‘Warrior Spirit’ is what encourages a pilot to rush down to the tarmac to help the baggage handlers load bags and get the plane back on time. For Airbnb, a value like ‘Be a Host’ encourages employees to welcome anyone who sets foot into their offices with warmth and respect.
Accidental Values, on the other hand, are the shared behaviors, beliefs, and attributes that are unintentional. They are the values that bubble up, well…accidentally, sometimes almost covertly, until all of a sudden you look around the office and say, “wow, is it weird that everyone here has a blue mohawk, a pet Chihuahua Doodle, and likes polka music?”
Both sets of values inform culture. If leaders let them, Accidental Values can have just as much, if not more, influence on culture than Core Values. And yet, most leadership teams will spend months, if not years, on Core Values, while ignoring their own Accidental Values.
Accidental Values can grow within an organization from two primary sources. The first, surprisingly, can be from existing Core Values. While Core Values all sound positive, and certainly may make you unique and successful, they may be taken too far and sometimes be altogether misinterpreted. This is what happens when a value of ‘hard-work’ turns into ‘burns people out, or ‘adaptable’ morphs into ‘chaotic,’ or the value of ‘fun’ turns into ‘we hire exclusively from a pool of circus clowns.’ Unless you’re a circus clown company, this just makes no sense. Up until a couple of years ago, Uber’s core value of ‘toe-steppin,’ while intending to encourage employees to not be afraid of conflict, actually ended up encouraging some employees to act like jerks (and in some cases, ‘jerk’ was the kindest way to describe it).
The second source for Accidental Values can be even more dangerous. The leaders of the company all may consistently “value” and, thus, be drawn toward the same attributes. Inevitably, the influence of those values may unintentionally cascade. These behaviors, beliefs, and attributes that have nothing to do with Core Values can start to pervade the organization because the leadership team is made up of mostly ______ (introverts, surfers, young hipsters, engineers, eco-friendly hippies, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, circus clown-lovers). Yes, the circus clowns are back.
These attributes may not even be objectively negative but, unfortunately, what happens at organizations that have these accidental values is that employees, prospective employees, or even customers will inevitably see this and feel left out. Just think about the poor employee who shows up NOT in her clown costume on the first day of work. Awkward!
Patrick Lencioni often talks about Core Values being the ‘limits of diversity.’ Meaning, no company should tolerate an employee that diverges from their Core Values. (But in all other respects, diversity is critical to an organization’s success, allowing for better decision-making and innovation). And for some organizations, diversity is limited not just by their Core Values, but by the Accidental Values that reinforce certain behaviors or attributes throughout an organization, and that will without a doubt undermine Core Values over time.
So, what can you do about it? The most important step is for the executive team to own it. No matter what, the leadership team cannot delegate culture and core values to HR, to a consulting firm, or to a values and culture committee. These groups could certainly help implement a plan around culture and values, but the CEO and leadership team have to be the drivers. A leadership team is under the microscope in many ways, and the magnification of behaviors and values have an outsized influence on the rest of the organization.
Next, be clear about what you do want. Define your Core Values and recognize that they may come at a cost. There may be some really smart people who don’t have a ‘Warrior Spirit’ to go all out every day, or who don’t have the energy or desire to ‘Be a Host’ to everyone they encounter. But you can’t pick out what you don’t want unless you have a pretty darn clear idea of what you do want.
Then, as a leadership team, have an open, honest conversation about the not-so-positive behaviors, beliefs or attributes that you may need to guard against. Identify where those Accidental Values are coming from (from Core Values misinterpreted, or from the values and traits of the leadership team).
If they’re coming from a Core Value misinterpreted, then it’s time to overcommunicate what your Core Values mean, and what they don’t mean. Reinforce that it’s possible to be driven but not abrasive, adaptable but not indecisive, warm and friendly but not soft and un-accountable.
If the Accidental Value comes directly from your leaders, then it may be time to overhaul your human systems to not only recognize that non-introverts, non-surfers, non-young hipsters, non-engineers, etc. are welcome at your company, but also to put a plan in place to diversify against your Accidental Values.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the number of flavors of sparkling water you have in your kitchen, or the plushness of your beanbags that matter most in defining your culture. It is the combination of your Core Values and Accidental Values. Make the effort to identify, and work on, both.
By Glenn Lyday, Table Group Principal Consultant