Corporate Values: Do They Help or Hurt Employee Experience?

A look into the impact that corporate values can have on employee experience.


Michael G. Bartlett

August 31, 2020

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In the last few years, the notion of corporate values has become fashionable. You’ll often see businesses list their values on a wall in their office or on their website; it is very common to reinforce them with a culture committee. Some tend to stick with single words. Others will go further and decode them into more contextual statements. 

For example, bookstore company Barnes and Noble lists Empathy as one of its values. However, ice cream brand Ben and Jerry’s goes a step further and lists the phrase: “We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.” Though presented differently, they are saying the same thing.

The presentation of the value is not so important. What is important are the actions signaled by the core value. The reasons might surprise you. Let’s take an evolutionary look at the concept of values.

In his seminal work, The Control Heuristic, author Luca Dellanna postulates that “Values are buckets in which we categorize actions.” This does not mean that the values are the cause of the action, at least initially. 

Values actually begin life as simple narratives to explain actions. When enough association is built culturally between a value and a set of actions, the two become linked, resulting in the value becoming normative; that is to say, there is a shared cultural understanding and set of behaviors. Violate them at your peril!

One of the reasons this works well is because of how we are wired. In his new book, Unleash your Primal Brain: Demystifying how we think and why we act, Tim Ash says: “The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex keeps track of whether our needs are being met. If they are not, it raises an immediate alarm … social separation. But this mechanism does not simply go away as we mature. We continue to require massive amounts of healthy social attachment and validation. When appreciation is reciprocated it brings us closer together.” 

There is an in-built hard-wiring to perform actions that are normative to the group values. This is one reason why social norms are widely known for being one of the strongest methods of influence. We are more likely to comply with normative actions if we think we are being watched. And in times of stress or uncertainty, we are likely to default to them without a second thought. 

This makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective. When our ancestors were living on the plains of Africa with scarce resources, coordination between the group was paramount to survival. Those that worked together with the same proven values were more likely to survive. Those who did not would have suffered in-fighting and faced tougher odds. There was also the risk of being kicked out of the community as well.

Therefore, building a culture around specific values is an efficient way to encourage branded behaviors without forcing employees to have to memorize large binders of policies or codes of conduct. And it taps into our natural programming.

But, as you probably guessed, there is a dark side to all of this. 

The field of Complex Systems teaches us that sometimes small, innocuous behaviors by agents in a system (including employees in a business or people in a community) can create a tidal wave of emergent behavior that produces unintended and devastating results.

To illustrate this point, author John H. Miller, ran a simple simulation which he described in his book, A Crude Look At The Whole. In this experiment, we imagine a small, circular lake surrounded by houses. Every resident has two neighbors—one to their left and one to their right. Miller says, “As in most neighborhoods, the behavior of each resident is influenced by their neighbors.”

Miller uses lawn care as the behavior. Each homeowner randomly either mows their lawn or does not. But after the first round of actions, they then adopt the consensus opinion of their own action and their adjacent neighbors. 

Think of this as a three-vote system. We could say that the neighbors either adopt the value of taking care of their property or not.

So how do you think this ends up? If you want you can stop reading now, get a piece of paper out and a coin, and randomly create 12 neighbors living around a lake and see what happens. The results are fascinating. 

For the rest of you, here are the results. 

A number of small ‘islands’ emerge. Each begins to grow larger. However, when two large islands of opposing values collide, one is not absorbed by the other. Instead, a hard border forms between them. Each island has slowly become more and more homogeneous. Like attracts like. We can see this natural structure in the emergence of businesses, countries, and even political maps.

In his book, Bottlenecks, David C. Evans notes, “Human cognitive and social evolution has tuned us to conform when three peers show a behavior. Experiments by psychologist Solomon Ash demonstrated the almost embarrassing power that three peers have to influence our behavior. Flocks of birds or schools of salmon might need only one or two adjacent nodes to trigger conformity.”  Ever wondered how silos form?  Now you know.

As Miller concludes, “Thus, a basic model of lawn care can give us insights into how neighborhoods can fall apart, and perhaps even suggest policies that might put them back together—such as strategically targeting particular residents for behavioral changes that will result in large positive impacts on the overall state of the system.” 

The point here is that the biological wiring that allows us to conceptualize and exploit values as a short-cut is both the glue that binds us together and the physics that pushes us apart. But when approached strategically, it can lead to the formation of strong teams and positive employee experience.

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About the guest author

Michael G. Bartlett, Author, CCXP Exam Preparation 

Michael Bartlett’s materials have trained over 1,000 students to prepare for their CCXP.

In 2017 he wrote the book CCXP Exam Preparation, which has to date raised over $6,000 for charity and helped to fund life-saving operations, transport, and shelter for rescue dogs all over America.  Two years previously, Michael had stumbled across an injured beagle on the side of a Missouri road that changed his life forever, and he has thus now dedicated himself to giving back to help human kind’s best friend.

He is passionate about learning new ideas and then teaching them back to fellow Customer Experience practitioners.  He is currently the Director of Experience Innovation at JMARK in Springfield, MO.

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