Your Organizational Values Won't Work Without This

Posted by Andrea Olson on Jun 12, 2018 10:17:00 AM

Hand with marker writing Your Culture Is Your Brand

Written by Andrea Belk Olsen, MSC and CEO of Pragmadik

While many companies have a set of established “organizational values”, they often fall short of effectively shaping a set of behaviors that drive customer-centricity. 

Traditional organizational values are usually broad, covering general principles including things like:

  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Open Mindedness
  • Reliability
  • Dependability

Even values presented as “commonly held” by an organization aren’t really so. For example, think of a politician who extols values such as “freedom” and “liberty.” Voters might agree that those are important values, yet disagree deeply on what the values really mean. Is freedom supported through social programs that redistribute wealth, or is freedom served through being left to our own devices without government intervention? “Freedom” can be used in both ways and exists as a common value only to the extent that people define it in the same way.

In organizations, people interpret and contest values all the time. At a nationally renowned university, one of the core values lauded is “responsibility”, which is defined as meaning, “to serve as a catalyst for positive change”. The interpretation of this definition varies widely from employee to employee. In our interviews, one employee associated the word “responsibility” with accountability and duty, rather than with being a catalyst for change. Another was unclear how the organization defines positive change. Even if most employees agree that “responsibility” is an important value, many may not agree with what that means or feel that the stated definition represents their own ideas about responsibility.

To further complicate things, people may contest organizational values while maintaining their commitment to the success of the organization. This may be as obvious as open disagreement, or as subtle as a manager quietly reshaping a project to reflect their personal ideas about how things should be done.

Even values targeted specifically to bring people together may not necessarily function that way. For example, Build-A-Bear Workshop states that it views “Di-bear-sity” as a core value. However, it’s fairly easy to imagine that while some might view this as a cute and positive representation of the value of diversity, others might respond that the term trivializes real issues related to diversity in the workplace and more generally in society. Employees might be divided on this point while retaining an overall commitment to the company and even feeling appreciative of the effort despite its weaknesses. Some research has found that rather than making everyone feel included, praising diversity can make some people feel singled out or threatened.

And this brings us to an important point: The attempt to unify an organization by creating a customer centric culture is ultimately an exercise of soft power – changing behaviors through influence. Fundamentally, a culture is not a set of generic values. Reliance on a list of values as the basis for organizational culture and a way to create unity misleads leaders into thinking that the values expressed by the organization are actually accepted by employees. This can lead to false beliefs that publicly expressed conformity with these values reflects personal acceptance. It obscures the fact that people may align themselves with stated organizational values not because they agree, but because they see other things, such as job security, as more important to achieving their personal goals.

So crafting a customer centric culture starts with more than a list of company values. It begins with the foundation of addressing fundamental human needs. Every person has a set of needs that must be met, in order to build trust and establish a core cultural basis of alignment. If these needs are not addressed and supported through behaviors within the organization, no additional “values” will carry any weight. Organizational values may change as the company grows and expands, but the fundamental human needs do not.

About the Author

Andrea's 20-year, field-tested background provides unique, applicable approaches to creating more customer-centric organizations. A 4-time ADDY® award-winner, she began her career at a tech start-up and led the strategic marketing efforts at two global industrial manufacturers.

In addition to writing, consulting and coaching, Andrea speaks to leaders and industry organizations around the world on how to craft an effective customer-facing operational strategies to discover new sources of revenues and savings. 

Connect with Andrea to access information on her book, workshops, keynote speeches, training or consulting. More information is also available on and

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Andrea Olson

Written by Andrea Olson

Topics: strategic planning, strategy implementation

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