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Are Your Company Values More Than Just Words?

Are Your Company Values More Than Just Words?

by Louis Efron

Story Highlights

  • A unique, value-informed culture attracts employees and customers
  • Imbuing company values starts with the C-suite
  • Managers are key to connecting individual work to organizational values

Most organizations have core values proudly displayed on their walls, on their website and in company marketing materials. But what if you stopped a random employee in the hall and asked them for a story that supports those values? If you are met with blank stares, silence or a long “hmm,” those values are not being lived in the business.

Painting company values on walls may add color to your lobby and hallways, but if they are not lived, a disingenuous workplace emerges -- one with little to no emotional connection for employees who will easily leave for a larger paycheck. As research has shown, a “pay only” connection to a workplace isn’t the silver bullet for retaining talent -- and unlived values are a sure formula for failure in the war to attract and retain top talent.

Values determine business success. Competitors can take your ideas, products, employees and customers, but they cannot steal your culture, and a unique culture is what draws employees and customers to your organization and keeps them loyal.

To embed values into a culture, you need to do three things:

  1. Set the tone at the top -- lead by example.
  2. Validate and assess values and culture through ongoing story collection and sharing.
  3. Reinforce and hold everyone accountable for your values and culture.

Tone at the Top

Advertised values are a C-suite leadership promise to all business stakeholders -- employees, customers and investors. Despite this, Gallup’s research shows that only 26% of U.S. employees strongly agree their company always delivers on its promises, and only 46% of customers strongly agree their vendors deliver on the same. Just 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization’s values to their work, and only 27% strongly agree that they “believe in” these values.

Leadership by example is the only way to turn employee and consumer disbelief into trust and loyalty.

Employees and customers need to see consistent and genuine examples of what leaders stand for and care about, inside and outside of the organization. For example, an organization’s C-suite cannot say they believe in saving the environment but run fossil fuel fleets, operate high carbon emission manufacturing plants and drive gas-guzzling vehicles. Think of a chocolate cake. It is chocolate on the outside, and no matter how you cut it, it is chocolate on the inside. This consistency of expectation is what makes organizational values stick and company cultures thrive.

Competitors can take your ideas, products, employees and customers, but they cannot steal your culture, and a unique culture is what draws employees and customers to your organization and keeps them loyal.


Imagine working for an organization that has “empowerment” on the walls, but the only stories employees can recall are the times when they have been micromanaged.

Or “continuous improvement” adorns every conference room when nearly everything in the business has been done the same way for the last two decades.

Or “care” is highlighted in all executive presentations, but every time there’s an economic downturn, employees lose their jobs because of a business strategy that does not protect the livelihood of people.

Values are a core way you do business and achieve business outcomes. They are not aspirational ideas hung on the wall to give employees hope. Values also attract people who believe in them to your organization. When new recruits discover that the values are a myth, they bitterly leave. Under such false pretenses, it is no wonder some organizations are bleeding talent and battling a poor employment brand.

Impromptu stories provide the clearest evidence that your company lives and breathes its values.

Stories illustrating your organizational values also define how your business fulfills its purpose. Without strong, lived and embedded values, it is difficult for employees to find meaning in their job.

Among U.S. employees, only four in 10 strongly agree with the statement, “The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.”

Why does this matter? By moving this ratio to eight in 10 employees, organizations could realize 41% lower absenteeism, 50% fewer safety incidents and a 33% improvement in quality. In a tangible way, your purpose and values really are the way you do business and the way you succeed as a company.

And during marketplace volatility, values-based cultures bring your organization’s employment and customer brand story to life and ensure sustainability -- they demonstrate a company’s interest in things beyond money. This can keep teams performing at a high level, even during temporary declines in revenue.


Cultures that hold all levels of the organization -- from the receptionist to the CEO -- accountable for lived values draw notice because they present strong evidence of commitment.

Accountability is the result of the communication of expectations, performance management, and reward and recognition. All mechanisms that reinforce and manage behavior should align with the organization’s values and be transparent. Doing so creates a culture of self-management -- actions that don’t align with organizational values are obvious and quickly rejected.

Direct line managers remain the key to accountability. They help connect individual work to organizational values and purpose. For example, if your corporate value is safety, it’s the manager who finds a way to integrate that into the day to day. They might ask, “Where does safety fit into this project, and why is it important to our personal wellbeing and that of our coworkers and customers?” If your corporate value is integrity and the manager is reviewing an objective, they may ask, “How are we going to make sure we’re held accountable for doing the right thing for all our stakeholders?”

Without strong, lived and embedded values, it is difficult for employees to find meaning in their job.

One of the pioneers of organizational values and cultural accountability is Southwest Airlines. Its values are visible, celebrated, taken seriously and integrated into everything the organization does. The company’s values are supported by appreciation, recognition and celebration. Their values are the way they treat each other and their customers and how they run their business. As a people-first organization with a 50-year history of protecting the jobs of their employees, the CEO, Gary Kelly, stopped taking a salary, and other top executives took 20% pay cuts when the recent pandemic devastated their industry. There’s a story -- strong evidence -- that their values are authentic and genuine.

To ensure the worth of your organizational values, ask and answer the following questions:

  • How well do employee stories align with our values, purpose, brand and culture?
  • Are employees truly committed to our values and culture?
  • Do our values and culture drive performance?
  • Is our culture consistent across all business units?
  • Do our values and culture influence employees to do what is best for our customers and communities?
  • How clear are our purpose and brand to employees and customers?

Values that have meaning endure, attract and retain top talent, create winning cultures, and drive business and organizational outcomes. What stories do you have?

Create a company culture where your values are lived out every day.


Louis Efron is a Principal at Gallup.

Ryan Pendell contributed to this article.

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