Company values don’t work – what to do?

What happens when values lose their purpose, what's usually the cause and how to rebuild and maintain a growth culture that's in alignment with employee values

Values define the organization at its core and are one of the most important aspects of attracting and retaining employees. They represent a set of rules that guide the flow of the organization and hold everyone accountable to the right standards of behavior. But what happens when values lose their purpose and what's usually the cause? The following article not only answers both to these questions, but also provides some guidelines on how to rebuild and maintain a growth culture that's in alignment with employee values.
Reading time: 8 min

What’re the causes of values not working anymore?

People strive to have the company’s values reflected in their work, but in reality, that’s not always the case. When values don’t work, the logical conclusion is that the company doesn’t mean what it says and that it’s perfectly acceptable for an employee to behave contrary to the values. A major study in the U.S. found that only 27 % of employees “believe” in their company’s values. These results are very worrying, because they show that values are just an abstract phenomenon for most people, when in reality they should have the power to decisively influence employee performance.

Misuse of values

When values become a weapon of punishment

After examining many conditions under which corporate values are a powerful force, Carucci highlighted three particularly important ones. The first condition shows that employees are selected, assessed, and trained to embody the values, with their supervisors responsible for how they live the values. If a company fails to truly embed its values in the organization, they immediately become a weapon of punishment. Carucci recounts that in one company, an interviewee said, "If you want to kick someone you don't like out of the company, just accuse them of not living the values." What was wrong in this case was that true accountability for adherence to the company's values didn't require objective behavioral measures and agreed-upon standards that are applied consistently throughout the company. The values that were supposed to unify and inspire the culture had morphed into a toxic gang rivalry, and eventually the values were simply ignored.

Values divert attention away from misconduct

The second condition is that without self-sincerity, values divert attention from misbehavior. Usually, chronic bad behavior or a scandal causes the values to take center stage again. Failure to live up to the company's values should be acknowledged with honest humility. Managers usually feel compelled to appear decisive when they don't demonstrate self-honesty. What they should do is change their actions, not their values. Otherwise, this could lead them to choose words that contradict the known cultural norm that needs to be cured. Carucci also shows two great examples of "transparency" suddenly becoming a value when there's been a cover-up, and "diversity and inclusion" becoming a value after there have been too many discrimination lawsuits. He also points out that a new value promulgated with the unspoken intention of engaging employees is the last thing that happens when they embrace it. Values then become a shield that protects the organization from honesty. Campaigns and corporate statements then often proclaim the new or updated values, creating the illusion of engagement, while the real enemy is the bad behavior lurking in the background.

When the actions of the leader are misunderstood

Another study in a small service company showed that allowing their employees to interpret the company's values for themselves can doom leaders to failure. Denunciations and finger pointing can begin, even though the manager is making a genuine effort to create an environment that matches his or her values. Researchers have found that employees who feel that the manager's decisions are at odds with the company's values - even when they aren't - quickly conclude that their manager lacks personal commitment to their values and is therefore perceived as a hypocrite. From then on, any decision the leader made that didn't align with the company's values was met with the assumption that he or she simply didn't care. Over time, employees developed their own interpretations of the company's values that went far beyond the leader's original intentions.

How can you build a culture that aligns with employees' values?

The key is that the manager must work diligently to ensure that the company's values are discussed. If employees feel that the company's values have been violated, they may be reluctant to express their views and thoughts.

"If you regularly ask your employees what they think and how they feel about changes and situations, it'll be easier for them to voice their possible concerns."

Honest feedback is one way to prevent disaster, although it may be difficult for a manager to hear the truth from their employees. The fact is, there's no one right set of values for every organization. A study of job crafting revealed three ways a company can improve its own employee experience while helping the employer foster a strong culture of growth.

Improve role fit

Encourage your employees to focus on the work they enjoy the most and feel provides the most value. For example, if an employee enjoys talking to customers, he or she can make his or her job more interesting by doing more tasks that allow for face-to-face conversation. The manager's job is to regularly ask for feedback and support employees.

Make connections in the workplace

It's important to give employees many opportunities to strengthen their relationships with each other. This can be achieved, for example, through team-building activities, celebrations at the workplace, or setting up social gathering places in the office. N. Baumgartner believes that it's especially important for employers to encourage frequent recognition and feedback at all levels of the organization. This builds trust and open communication within the company. Employers can also ask their employees for feedback that provides guidance or advice on how to improve relationships. Encourage employees to make a coffee sync with coworkers that they don't know well yet, or form a group to meet for sports or a social activity.

Connect roles to purpose

Employers need to develop a culture that reinforces each employee's role in the organization. Encourage employees to consider or rethink how their role provides value to the organization as a whole, but also remember that it's the company's responsibility to make that connection clear.

Beliefs must be translated into concrete actions

A recent survey found that today's employees have high expectations of their leaders. Many are surprised to hear that the vast majority of employees would rather accept lower pay than work in a toxic environment, which is the main reason people leave companies. Therefore, every leader must recognize a toxic culture, prevent it, and transform it into a productive culture of growth. The company's core values should describe the collective attitudes and beliefs that all employees want to hold. Most important, however, is that all attitudes and beliefs are translated into concrete actions and decisions. These behaviors, in turn, lead to a customer experience that defines and differentiates the company's brand.

[a] Baumgartner, N. (2020). Build a Culture That Aligns with People’s Values. Harvard Business Review.

[b] Carucci, R. (2017). How Corporate Values Get Hijacked and Misused. Harvard Business Review.

[c] Coleman, J. (2022). It’s Time to Take a Fresh Look at Your Company’s Values. Harvard Business Review.

[d] Edmondson, A. C. and Cha, S. E. (2014): When Company Values Backfire. Harvard Business Review.

Ana Hribernik
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