Are Company Values Leading Cultural Change from Behind?

August 10, 2022

“The rate of change is not going to slow down any time soon.” – John Kotter

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

Upon establishing a company values proposition, leadership must be able to show that they understand and embrace such values in order to lead from behind towards organizational or cultural change.

Are Company Values Leading Cultural Change from Behind?

There’s much talk today about establishing organizational values and ensuring all employees follow them.

Oftentimes, what the organization says it values and what is actually demonstrated as valued are two very different things.

The organization may state values such as; People, Integrity, Commitment, Excellence, and Community. There are even awards given several times a year for each of these values.

Playing the company values card

In a series of 10 interviews I conducted for a research paper in October 2009, only one respondent out 10 actually knew what the company values were. Many stated that they didn’t feel they needed the values card, as these values were intrinsic to them, and that they lived by their own values system, and didn’t need the organization to tell them how to behave. Interestingly enough, one VP I interviewed pointed out that the reason the company instituted the values card was that “we can’t teach values, but we can teach behavior.

After extensively peeling back the onion on the company’s implementation of values, I concluded that people often believed that the stated values were shallow in actual practice. That of all the values, “excellence”, widely interpreted as “performance” or “the bottom line” was the most important value of all. And while the other values were not tied specifically to compensation, overt and embarrassing violation of those values could lead to a heavy penalty.

What do people value?

It was obvious that employees had come to realize that they could “go through the motions” and not “rock the boat” and as long as bookings, sales, profit, and cash targets were met, none of the other values would have any real positive impact on their daily work.

To answer the question at the personal level “What do people in the organization value?” we need to look beyond the employee values card. Based on my interview sample as well as multiple examples of anecdotal evidence, it seems many people trend toward placing value on survival.

“Peace for Pay” and “Active Exit” strategies are apparent in daily discussions as well as in the samples taken for the October 2009 research. There seems to be a high level of frustration and perception of meaninglessness without employee connection to real values. Widespread superficiality and “going through the motions” as well as a depressing fog seems to pervade the cube farms.

Daily examples support this theory. For instance, the values card for the People Value states: “You are important to us. Earn respect and treat others fairly every day. Commit to developing yourself and others. Seek Life Balance.” Unfortunately, this “value” seems to fail when put in practice.

For example,  a new director decides to bring his own admin with him to his new job, displacing the current admin. The current admin was told she would have to reapply for her job, and she receives no backing from her management. She has to lodge an HR and legal complaint on her own, and believe it or not, actually wins!  She feels that she has nothing to lose since she would probably be out of a job either way.

Now she has to work for a manager who tried to get rid of her and the admin, who was brought with the new director, is the one out of a job. If the director had left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. But he wasn’t putting people first, only his own wants. I am sure that neither of those admins feels truth in the People Value Statement, “You are important to us.”

As a result of this type of behavior, many people place value on ensuring their 401Ks stay intact and they and their spouses staying healthy enough to enjoy a long retirement. In fact, I have personally learned to escape “quiet desperation” by leveraging the many benefits the company offers in its quest to fulfill its “people value.”  i.e. The company pays 100% tuition for degrees up to $10K per year and offers much in the way of recreation (company gym, wooded walking trails, free semi-annual parties) and multiple other company benefits.                       

The fear, anger, and complacency of company values

The shallowness of the implementation of the stated values is the main cause of fear, anger, and complacency. Since most people acknowledge the hypocrisy and double standards, they feel that they may risk their jobs if they try to right a wrong. In fact, without strong internal advocates, righting wrongs is considered a contact sport.

For instance, in the case of supplier ratings, one employee discovered a red program had been rated yellow to cover the company’s weakness in managing the supplier. When she inherited the supplier, she immediately rated its performance red and consequently took much criticism and pressure from management.

Her response was that if the supplier was not living up to the Statement of Work and schedule, she should not change the rating. There was no argument or fuzzy logic involved. However, others with less experience had feared such challenges as career-limiting and under pressure, had left the rating yellow to appease management.

Having to challenge management to live up to the “integrity” value (“be honest, always do the right thing”) on a regular basis can engender frustration, anger and a sense of complacency.  For example, a local staff meeting starts off with a slide on the company values. It is shown for only a few seconds and then it disappears so employees can go on with “real work.” Rather than embarrass the boss by asking for a review of these values, at the moment the slide is shown, employees will often wait until the meeting is over and privately discuss an issue that has come up during the week.

Employees always present the disconnect in terms of the stated company values. For example, an employee is asked to pay suppliers for work not yet completed so the sale can go into a certain quarter. The employee presents this issue to management in terms of “what company value does this represent?” But there is no answer from the boss, just an awkward smile.

The perception is that gentle pressure at the right levels can begin to engender a sense of urgency, but until leaders demonstrate they understand and embrace company values, more fear, anger, and complacency will persist.


About the Author

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach (ICF-PCC), Society of Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP). Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Coaching, the University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University.  A certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader, Mary holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. She is also a ICF certified Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, as well as a Certified EQi-2.0 and EQ360 Practitioner.

Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years’ experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from the status quo to new ways of thinking, offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. Holding a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, Mary taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area. Today, Mary dedicates herself to helping good leaders get even better through positive behavior change.

Share HR West 2018 Details! > HR in the most innovative place on earth! #HRWest18
Posted in Change Management, Culture, HR BLOG and tagged , , , .

Leave a Reply