Forget your values

Why you should think twice before declaring your company's values, and what to do instead.

Forget your values

When does a former startup start to feel corporate?

You might have seen it. It seems that last month you knew everyone in the company. Everyone worked hard, perfectly aligned towards a common goal, and loved it.

Then the company found its groove and started growing. You noticed that senior managers started referring to your colleagues as "resources." One day you didn't recognize most of the people you saw around the coffee machine.

On one beautiful morning you get an email. The leadership would like your help in shaping the new values for the company. There is an extensive survey, and you participate in a sequence of mandatory round table meetings. From the ground up, with the help of an external agency, you and your colleagues define the values:

"Work hard, play hard."

"Be excellent to each other."

"Focus on the customer."

"Empowered with diversity."

For a few days it's the favorite topic of jokes for you and your friends in the office. Then the jokes get old, and you mostly forget about the whole thing. But it's far from over.

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The attack of the values

Soon these phrases appear on the walls of the office in fancy lettering. HR insists that you explain the company values when interviewing new candidates. In your following performance review, you need to give yourself marks for how well you embodied the values. You feel weird giving yourself a mark for empathy and excellence, but you go along with it.

It is evident that the management team is concerned with the team's well-being. They send out regular pulse surveys asking for your feedback and suggestions. They invite a famous motivational speaker to the yearly offsite. He stands on stage, surrounded by posters with the phrases you know so well by now, and he talks about the importance of values and teamwork. "Are you willing to take responsibility for your team's culture?" he asks.

You don't know. You had a vague idea of what culture is before, and after this speech you feel like you have no idea whatsoever. You would like to know, though, because you think that your team has lost it a bit. Some of your friends left the company, and you no longer feel the same motivation. Really, you just miss the old startup days when there was no fancy lettering on office walls, but there was this elusive sense of the common goal.

What is culture, anyway?

That's the thing about the team's culture. It is easy to feel it with some social sixth sense. It is a bit harder to put it in words, to describe what makes your team different from others. And it is much more difficult to change the culture.

Your well-being in the team is composed of all the small interactions you have with your colleagues during the day.

  • When you all join a meeting, do you say hi and share a joke before you start?
  • When a junior developer crashes a production server, does the team assign blame or treat this as a pretext to review the processes and runbooks?
  • Do you ever use or hear the word "resources" when speaking about people?
  • When a new joiner suggests an improvement, do you roll your eyes and dismiss it or bring it up for the whole team to review and implement?
  • Does everyone have a chance to contribute in meetings without louder voices talking over them?
Catchy slogans do not define the team's culture and quarterly pulse surveys can hardly measure it.

If you're a part of the team, you live and breathe it. If you are outside of the team, it is invisible to you unless you take the time to join and observe how people interact and which decisions they make day by day.

When you define it like that, the culture is a magical thing that people will enjoy and remember even long after they leave the team. It is the most valuable thing that the company and the management can cultivate.

But the way to do it is not with grand declarations or motivational speeches. You cannot build the culture from scratch. You have to help it grow like a garden. It takes commitment every day.

Positive, supportive voices must be amplified, initiatives must be rewarded by action, and trust must be established by repeated collaboration. That's how you get and retain 10x engineers, as I wrote in one of my previous posts.

Does this mean that there is no place for snappy slogans on the office walls? I believe there is, but you have to choose them wisely.

What deserves to be written on the office walls

It is a widely accepted practice in the tech industry to run campaigns to define company values. On the surface, the idea seems reasonable: allow the employees (with some guidance) to define a set of mottos that will shape the company's culture. Create some branding materials with these mottos. Proclaim them in every job advert and every hiring interview.

Most often, though, these values sound obvious to the point of banality. Your company wants you to be a decent person as if you needed a reminder. Or you are supposed to care about your customers. Great, because you didn't know where your salary is coming from.

As a result, there is a disconnect between the values that the company declares and the real, everyday life in the team. The supposed values add nothing to the mood and motivation of the team.

Forget the values. What a company should do instead is define its reason for existence. Give people a goal that they will care about, and let them collaborate to reach that goal. With your trust they will find the right way to work together, and the values of empathy, teamwork and focus will grow by themselves. 

Whether you call it a vision or a mission, it should tell:

  • how do you want to impact your customers, your industry and your community;
  • what actions you are planning to take to reach these goals.

If you have to put something on the office walls, let it be that.

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