Bring your cultural values to life with these four steps

Jake Goldwasser
Team Humu

Success hinges on action

Culture underpins every measure of organizational success. If culture and strategy aren’t aligned, top initiatives—from improving retention to delivering record revenue—fail.

For many leaders, translating a vision into meaningful action at every level of their company is where things fall apart. Leaders articulate org-wide cultural values, share them broadly, and then watch managers and teams forget about them as short-term priorities take precedence.

Companies that make it an explicit point to focus on behavior change are 5 times as likely to achieve strong financial performance from their digital transformations. But crucial to that success is the ability to be nimble, proactive, and focused on action. One of the top drivers of the 5x profitability boost was action orientation as opposed to cumbersome planning.

At Humu, we’ve helped countless companies focus on action to revitalize their cultures, deliver on strategic HR initiatives, and surmount organizational challenges. We’ve found that the organizations that have best weathered the pandemic—and emerged from it stronger than ever—were those that deprioritized intensive planning in favor of helping their teams become agile and responsive. Here are some of the highest-leverage steps to take toward that end.

The steps to values empowerment

1. Frame the vision 

Cultural values can’t be enforced—they can only be cultivated. If your goal is to achieve widespread adoption of values, your challenge is to grow a movement within your organization. And it’s employees, not leaders, who will ultimately make or break a movement. 

To jumpstart employee commitment to culture, first make a case for why the company exists. What is your organization’s why? Then encourage managers to connect employees’ daily work to this mission.

Here are some questions to answer when you’re framing the vision:

  • How do we meaningfully impact the lives of our customers?
  • What example are we setting in the way we treat each other as employees?
  • How, as a company, do we fit into making the world a little bit better?
2. Make the big picture personal

A top-down, planning-focused approach isn’t likely to take root in the organization. Employees aren’t motivated by nebulous plans—they’re motivated by the positive impact their work has on others inside and outside of the company.

Many leaders have learned the hard way that over-indexing on planning at the expense of being responsive to employee concerns on the ground stalls transformation. In reflecting on their initiatives, only 22% of leaders said they would spend more time planning if they had to do it over again. As our CEO Laszlo Bock puts it, “Action planning is an oxymoron.”

Employee sentiment tells a similar story. Only 8% of employees strongly agree that their organization makes positive changes based on survey results. They need to see action to believe it:

  • Share specific impact stories. In company-wide meetings, show how the company is making change in the world by giving concrete examples. Read “fan mail” from customers or flag mentions the company has gotten in the media. Then explicitly tie those successes to the efforts of the teams responsible for them—and give them praise.
  • Give each person a micro-mission. What is it that each individual employee contributes to the mission? Make it every manager’s responsibility to frame the micro-mission of all of their direct reports.
3. To reach everyone, mobilize allies

Most employees’ impression of company culture is based on the handful of colleagues they work most closely with. This poses a challenge for leaders, because it means that sterling leadership isn’t a cure-all—culture values need to reach every corner of the organization, at every job level, in order to sway employee sentiment.

Here are some of the highest-impact measures you can take as a leader:

  • Demonstrate quick wins: Research shows that demonstrating the effectiveness of a movement can activate people who are sympathetic but not yet engaged. Find examples of cultural values that are already in practice in the organization—highlight that progress and encourage more of it.
  • Deploy networks: Values are influenced more by social relationships than by anything else. Tap into social networks within the organization to celebrate wins and spread the message. In particular, bring employees into the process of creating cultural values in the first place—team members are more likely to put in the effort to support values if they have helped shape them.
  • Use symbols to market your cause: Symbols serve as shorthand to amplify your message. They help employees understand what the culture is about and identify colleagues who are already engaged and committed. Posters, laptop stickers, or even a simple slogan can help employees frame the movement.
4. Create fast feedback loops

Without visible, meaningful progress, movements falter. 

You can reinforce improvement within your own organization by helping employees and managers give each other regular, useful advice—both positive and constructive. Feedback serves two purposes: it supports team development, and it also makes improvement visible and tangible. A few simple feedback exercises tied specifically to company values can go a long way towards achieving this goal:

  • Encourage managers to foster open discussion about values in team meetings and retrospectives. Example: “What’s one thing we could have done better to embody our cultural value of empathy during this project?”:
  • Normalize upward feedback. Make it an explicit company norm that reports should feel comfortable giving feedback to their managers, or even their skip-level managers. This will help leaders in the organization find out if they need to do more to support a value within their team.
  • Invite employees at any level to suggest solutions to issues they encounter. Creativity comes from all levels of the organization, and often employees in diverse functions and levels will have unique insights into where things could improve. Feedback can help launch company values into action.

Write your values with action in mind

In a 2021 Gallup report, researchers found that the highest quit rates exist among disengaged workers, regardless of pay and benefits. In other words, for most workers, attrition isn’t a compensation issue: it’s a culture issue.

The most effective cultural values are more than just ideals—they’re guidelines for action. When you’re working with your teams to craft cultural values, let them know that the ultimate goal is action, and ask them what kind of action they want to see in the organization. 

As a leader, you can’t control everything your employees do, and you wouldn’t want to, either. What you can do is frame how they understand the company and the values the company stands for. Are those values going to be empty phrases that only live in engagement surveys, or are they going to be the living code of conduct that inspires everyone in the organization to be their best?

At Humu, we make it easy to turn cultural values into action. Want to learn more about how we can help you put this playbook into practice? Get in touch.

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