A Bnet post titled “Why ‘Corporate Culture’ Is a Myth” caught my attention. The author makes imprecise distinctions between “culture” and “values”:

“The values of a group might be honorable — or not. Unlike the mushier name culture, with its connotation of a cozy melting pot or a delightfully harmonious salad bowl, values includes more than what is outwardly professed, endlessly parroted and tritely canonised on T-shirts and coffee mugs. It also encompasses what is implicit, often deliberately buried and denied. People may talk your ear off about their culture, but values can be seen in real-time … as evidenced by real actions.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen plenty of company values “endlessly parroted and tritely canonised” on wall plaques, coffee mugs, ID badges and wallet cards. These lists had no more impact on employee behaviours and actions than the “culture” the Bnet author is so quick to deride.

The missing, but critical, point to understand is that values and culture are inextricably intertwined. The problem arises when a company has its STATED values (on a plaque on the wall, coffee mugs, ID badges) that are entirely different from the demonstrated and TOLERATED values. Regardless of the STATED values, it’s the TOLERATED values around which the culture is formed.

Think of it this way — ENRON had several stated vales, included integrity. But they sure didn’t demonstrate integrity in their work. The company culture was very much one that encouraged deceit and profit at all costs.

So how do you merge your STATED values come alive to contribute to and create the company culture you want? The most effective way is also the most positive — through strategic recognition. This is "after the fact" recognition that catches employees behaving in the right way, and then specifically calls them out for it. In a formal recognition programme, we strongly recommend using your company values as the reasons for recognition and then allow anyone in the organisation to formally recognise anyone else. What would this look like?

"John, thank you for the INTEGRITY you demonstrated when dealing with customer X. It was a difficult situation for reasons ABC, but you consistently held to our standards as a company while still responding to X’s needs in the most appropriate way as well. Well done."

If you allow anyone to notice and appreciate behaviours of colleagues that reflect your values, and you encourage such recognition frequently, employees begin to understand how to live out the values in their daily work — taking the values off the wall and making them real. This then creates the culture you wanted — one built on recognition.