In 2016 Culture Amp was growing fast and onboarding employees even faster. As we grew from 50 to 100 Campers (what we call Culture Amp employees) in less than a year, and spread ourselves across four different time zones, our values were getting lost in translation.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear conversations like this:
“What are our company values?”
“There’s the one about feedback and something about decisions...or is it trust?”
“Hmm, I can’t remember.”
Although it wasn’t just accurate recollection or understanding that we were aiming for, it was the ‘doing’ part. We needed to find a way to live our values - not just talk about them.
This set in motion a project aimed at making our values relevant and real for every employee at Culture Amp. I’m a People Scientist at Culture Amp, and at the time I was leading several of our internal culture initiatives. Here I’ll be sharing our approach so that you can apply the same process to deepen the understanding of values at your company.
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This scenario may be all too familiar for many companies - values at risk of becoming nothing but words on the wall. In our case, our data also showed that we needed to be more committed to our values as an organization. In 2016, our commitment to our values was our strongest driver of engagement (well above common drivers of engagement like learning and development and leadership) and we had room to improve our score. Comments further highlighted uncertainty about what living our values meant and requests for more support.
On reflection, none of this was a surprise. We were 100 people at this time, yet our company values had been defined by our founders three years prior when we were less than 10 people. We had been growing so rapidly since then that just keeping up with hiring to meet growth targets was our focus. Values induction led by our CEO took place during onboarding, but then our values were barely touched on as new Campers integrated into their teams.
For us to continue being a Culture First company, everyone needed to feel that we were committed to our values and to see them in action.
At the time we had three values:
- Have the courage to be vulnerable
- Learn faster through feedback
- Trust people to make decisions
We started looking for a way to get everyone at Culture Amp to understand what living these values meant and what difference they made in our day-to-day actions.
I researched how to bring company values to life, but struggled to find any practical guidance. Most resources were simply broad outlines or generic advice such as ‘find out what your values mean to employees’ and then ‘make them real.’
Instead we designed an approach ourselves - outlined below along with a detailed session plan for you to use.
Working on your company's values to bring them to life is as simple (and as difficult) as getting people together to talk about what they mean and reaching mutual agreement on behaviors.
At Culture Amp, we assembled a small cross-functional and global team to structure a series of initiatives, mostly focused around interactive workshops that we called Values in Action. With at least one person in each location represented in the team, we were able to ensure it wasn’t just a ‘head office initiative.’
Structuring the Values in Action workshops
The Values in Action workshops were designed to bring our values to life through storytelling. Too often when we talk about values, we start describing the world we want to live in, rather than looking at the unique context and reality within which we operate. By telling real stories we start to do the latter.
In each office location, we ran a dedicated two-hour workshop for each value. Eventually we added an additional workshop to uncover our fourth value. It wasn’t all smooth-sailing from the get-go; the initial workshop was met with a combination of enthusiasm and skepticism. Many people had previously been involved in so-called workplace ‘values’ initiatives with little success.
However, once we worked through the benefits of the three core elements we’d explore - meaning, relevance and mutuality - and the storytelling component, people were on board. They knew we were doing something different.
We started off each session with a video of our founders sharing stories of our three values. This step was essential to set the tone, and ensure the legacy of each value was considered as a part of its evolution.
In groups we then discussed the three core areas we believe establish a solid foundation for bringing values into action:
1. Meaning - What does this value mean to you?
Articulating what a value means at both a conceptual and personal level is an important first step. It’s hard to get excited about something if you don’t understand what it means for you.
2. Relevance - Why is this value important to our company?
Articulating the relevance can be the ‘ah-ha’ moment for people where they understand why the values exists. In our case, learning faster through feedback is highly relevant for us as a product company operating in a market of constant disruption.
3. Mutuality - What is required from others to keep this value alive?
Mutuality is often missed, yet it is at the heart of bringing your values to life and ensuring more consistency. When you look at a value it should tell you two things - what can you expect from the company and what the company expects from you. Individuals may be acting in way that is aligned with your values, but if they don’t receive the right support from those around them, they will never stick.
An example for us was around learning faster through feedback. If someone is willing to ask for feedback to learn, then the mutuality is that I need to be willing to give them constructive feedback to help.
Finally, every Camper then had the chance to share their own story that exemplified a company value. Groups recorded their final versions which were shared across other offices at our All Hands.
The final storytelling step can’t be missed. This is where you assemble everything you’ve learned and your values become real. Highlighting where people have seen values play out (or not in some cases) is critical for getting people to live them moving forward. We all need inspiration.
That said, simply talking about our values during workshops wasn’t enough to fully bring them to life.
Our next steps were to:
- Create a summary of the workshop outputs (including recordings of individual values stories) from our four global locations and share these at our company All Hands.
- Make the summaries and story recordings available to everyone at Culture Amp.
- Use values summaries as the basis for the language we use both internally and externally
Through the process we all individually discovered what our values mean to us and even made space for a fourth to emerge (more on that next week!).
Bringing values into everyday behavior is often the hardest step for companies looking to articulate their culture. The values in action workshops and subsequent follow-through has worked for us. In fact, our employee engagement survey data shows that we’ve increased by over 10% in a quarter on our commitment to our values scores. We hope that our method and success can give you some guidance for clarifying your own company values.
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