I’ve always been a workplace culture skeptic. I’ve seen it fall flat in companies that exclaimed shared values yet thrive in environments where no one ever mentioned it.
One of my most memorable culture-building experiences was at a recruitment agency where I was filling in as a copywriter. I had just settled into day three of headline churn when the receptionist rolled by with a cart of office plants. The pots were painted with words like "RESPECTFUL," "APPROACHABLE," and "GRACIOUS." She placed one on my empty desk and whispered, "This is to remind you of who we are…" which was odd given that my new copy chief delivered openly hostile to borderline abusive creative critiques.
My inquiries about the company’s "values" were met with eye rolls and sarcasm by the rest of the team. If a top-notch recruitment company couldn’t get culture right, who could? I skipped out the door six weeks later feeling certain that real values were another corporate myth.
This changed when I started a business of my own.
Culture starts with your team
As I built my agency, I realized that company values are shaped and owned by the team.
Our own Muse values - Harmony, Curiosity, Creativity and Accountability - were selected with the support of our team and external advisors after a handful of brainstorm sessions. Although we don’t consider ourselves culture experts, the topic comes up when discussing business and brand strategy with our clients.
I recently interviewed Caroline Barni, a former client, current mentor and culture expert for her perspective on the connection between culture and branding.
Q: What’s the difference between brand attributes and cultural values?
A: Your brand strategy represents your external promises to your customers. On the other hand, cultural values are the internal promises you’re making to your team. It’s HOW you work together to accomplish business goals.
While these two areas need to be defined independently of one another, they both influence your success. Your culture aligns and inspires your people, which adds value to your brand promise. If your people are motivated to do great work, they’ll drive better results for the organization.
Q: When is it appropriate to communicate your values to the outside world?
A: Anytime, really. You don’t need to keep your values hidden behind the curtain. Your values support your recruitment efforts, in particular, not just for your own vetting, but to give your candidates the chance to assess if they want to work for you.
Values also help you identify like-minded customers. If you work with customers who have values that conflict with your own, you may face frustration and, ultimately, poor performance from your team.
Q: When do culture-building exercises fail?
A: Culture fails when company leaders – especially the CEO/founder – don’t believe in it. If leadership doesn’t reflect your values, no one else will, either. Ultimately, this can lead to a poor brand image.
Many executives value business strategy over culture. They talk about culture and values once or twice a year then go back to focusing on financial targets. However, to meet those tough goals, they need a positive culture that inspires people to achieve them.
Q: What are some of your favorite ways to express culture?
A: Your values need to be simple and memorable. Consider weaving them in to various activities so they feel authentic to your environment. Some examples include:
- Formulate interview questions around company values to assess candidates on cultural fit
- In conflict-resolution meetings, start one-on-one conversations with the value that most suits the situation. This makes the discussion less personal and more about serving the team
- Integrate values-based points into employee recognition programs
- Create a culture book or poster and share it with employees. This may feature candid pictures and fun culture-related facts that remind everyone of their commitment to the values.
At my current company, we’ve instituted a “Culture Kudos” Slack Channel where peers recognize each other for living out our values. It’s fun reading about the cookies that Sally baked for her department or other nice things people do for one another. It lights up our days in positive ways.
Q: Why are you so passionate about this topic?
A: I’m a people person. I'm from a big family and grew up with this strong sense of belonging. I want to carry that into my professional life wherever I can. Culture makes such a powerful impact when done right.
Once you satisfy basic needs – a fun, safe working environment, fair pay and perks – what is your team’s motivating factor to show up and perform? It’s culture.