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Values and Culture: So What’s the Difference? (Part I)

Updated: Sep 30

During INTERPRO’s 30 years of collaborating with both for-profit and non-profit organizations across the country, the most common responses we hear when we ask “how would you describe the culture here?” is either a list of company values or a request for a definition of “culture.”

This is not a surprise; culture is that element of our day-to-day life that quickly becomes invisible once we know “how things work around here.” Describing it is not an easy task, because we are not really conscious of it at any given moment (like breathing for example), and it is not something we can easily look at or measure. And yet, despite this fact, because we know – or sense - that it’s important, we translate it the best we can – through a list of values.

Let’s look at it from this perspective: Most companies have taken the time to define a vision, a mission, and a list of values. These elements help to set direction, clarify priorities and articulate what we believe in. Most organizations display these concepts inside their organization, and many share it on websites, annual reports and other public materials. If we were to ask top leaders about their company values, the vast majority would be able to cite them; many employees would be able to at least paraphrase them, and even some external partners might be familiar with them. This is all positive news, but if we take the same approach and ask these same groups instead about culture, it can get muddy.

There’s no mystery here really; values can be stated; they can be repeated, published, and displayed. These methods are tangible and verifiable, and they help to assure us that we have addressed this very critical element of a successful enterprise. But what about culture? If we acknowledge that culture is defined as the habits, norms, assumptions and expectations that define and direct how we behave toward one another and toward external interfaces, what about that is tangible and verifiable?

One of our biggest challenges is that the pace of business today is so blindingly fast that for most of us, if something is not tangible or verifiable, it can easily fall off our radar. Businesses value and reward results, and results are typically tangible. Once we hit the intangible, there is so much subjectivity and variability that although we may know it is important to look at, if it is not urgent, we set it aside. For today. And maybe the next day. And the next. And so on. Before we know it, we have completely lost track of our culture, and so we rely on a kind of “shorthand” that suggests that our company culture can be found in our list of values. For some, there is alignment between values and culture, for some, there is a gap. Where we experience our biggest blind spot is in assuming they are interchangeable.

And so, what is the difference? And why does it matter? Moreover, what can we do to continue to keep culture “front and center” – to keep it visible, tangible and verifiable?

First, let’s drill down to the key difference in these two factors: Stated values are aspirational while day-to-day culture is experiential. In other words, our list of values is what we strive for, what we hope to embody, and what we describe as being important to us. Culture is what we actually do, what we actually say, and what we actually act on as being important. And everyone in our organizations can feel the difference. Watch this space for more in this series of insights on how to build a high-performance culture.

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