What do your corporate values really mean?

July 29, 2012 Thad Peterson

Most companies have corporate values. In fact, truth be told, a lot of companies have the same values – at least on paper. “Integrity.” “Quality.” “Dedication.” “Honesty.”

The appeal of those common values is understandable. First of all, things like integrity and quality and dedication and honesty are great things – values that not only companies but also individuals tend to agree are noble. Secondly, at big companies, it’s hard to be overly specific about what you value. Big organizations have lots of people doing a vast array of different activities on a day-to-day basis. Saying the company values “Modern Design” probably wouldn’t resonate with the procurement manager at a global conglomerate, and saying the company values “Driving Down Costs” probably wouldn’t resonate so much with the company’s graphic designers.

But they’ve become generic. They’ve become bland. They’re milquetoast. They’re a bit like saying you’re all for motherhood and apple pie.

Like most things in business, the proverbial rubber hits the road when you start to get specific about what values really mean. What do they look like in action? How do they transcend lip service?

If you’re a corporate culture geek – as a fair number of us at Globoforce are – you may have come across the Netflix Culture presentation at some point, which somehow made it into the public domain and has been widely shared and discussed in the blogosphere (or as my coworker, Darcy, cleverly calls it, “The Hive Mind”).

While there are a lot of things to love about this presentation on a company’s culture—and setting aside the company’s recent PR challenges—here’s the part I appreciate: The leaders at Netflix break their values down to a level of granularity that most companies don’t. They explain the meaning and behaviors that underlie each pillar.

After seeing this presentation, not only do Netflix employees know that one of the corporate values is “judgment,” but they know that the company values it when employees “smartly separate what must be done well now, and what can be improved later.” Not only do employees know that Netflix puts a premium on “Communication,” they know that means “you are concise and articulate in speech and writing.” And when Netflix says it values “Impact,” its people know that means having “bias-to-action and avoiding analysis paralysis.”

It reminds me of the old saying about telling versus showing. Telling doesn’t really stick; showing does.

This also happens to be a piece of the puzzle that social recognition fills in. When you recognize certain behaviors that employees demonstrate – and you do so in a way that others in the organization can see it – it crystallizes what corporate values really mean. It gives tangible meaning to words like “Integrity” and “Determination.” It gives people mental models of the kinds of behaviors and actions are valued.

In other words, it brings your corporate values to life.

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