Why fancy words on a wall fail to influence workplace culture.
I haven’t been to a new city in a long time. I just started traveling again after a 3-year hiatus, but I still tend to end up in the same places - New Orleans, LA, Nashville, Denver, Toronto, Atlanta - over and over.
Last week, I finally had the chance to go somewhere new. I flew to Memphis for the annual RILA Retail Talent Committee Meeting. This event brings together HR executives from a variety of North American retailers to share insights into the modern employee experience. I facilitated a session, spoke on a panel and collaborated with peers from lots of amazing organizations.
We explored critical HR themes like hiring, talent development, communication, inclusion and retention, during our two days together. But the theme that popped up the most was the importance of understanding your workplace culture. This was perfectly demonstrated by the organization hosting our meeting when they shared The Pledge - four principles that guide decision making across their company.
Always put customers first.
We know our products.
Our stores look great.
We've got the best merchandise at the right price.
The Pledge got me thinking about the time I got into an argument about my own company’s core values.
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Send the train.
“Unusual condition” is one of the most important concepts in theme park attractions. It refers to any sight, sound or smell that appears abnormal in the course of daily operation. For example, you may notice a change in the appearance of a ride vehicle or hear the sound of clanging metal. The first thing you do when you encounter an unusual condition is STOP THE RIDE! Then report the situation for further investigation.
This happened one day when I managed Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The cast member operating the dispatch console heard the sound of leaking air and refused to start the ride. Instead, they came to me to report the situation. They did their job perfectly.
However, this particular sound was not unusual on this particular day. Maintenance had given us a heads up regarding the sound and assured us everything was OK. The cast member just hadn’t received the message. So I explained the situation and told her to send the train. She refused and cited Disney’s operating standards: The 4 (later updated to 5) Keys:
Safety comes first, so she was uncomfortable with starting the ride. I commended her for having the fortitude to do what she thought was right, even if it meant standing up to her manager. Then I replaced her at dispatch so we could get the ride going - because I knew we had all 4 keys covered.
Words on a wall.
Can you recite your company’s core values from memory? More importantly, can you use them to make everyday job decisions? That’s where I find most company missions, values and standards falter. Even if employees can remember them, they’re impossible to operationalize because they’re so vague and fluffy. Here are a few examples of values from large, familiar companies:
Build awesome things.
Integrity: be real.
Adhere to the highest professional standards.
Lead the way.
Honesty: employees are encouraged to speak up.
How does one measure one’s level of “realness?” How can I tell if the thing I’m building is awesome? And what company on earth doesn’t want their people to adhere to the highest professional standards? Most corporate values are basic workplace expectations, not well-defined standards capable of guiding complex decision-making. They’re fancy words on a wall that only come up during onboarding and when things go wrong.
Don’t #@!% the customer.
That’s my favorite company value statement ever. It’s not just because it’s actually spelled that way. It’s because it gets to the point in both language and tone. The folks at Atlassian understand the importance of operationalizing their values via simple, direct, actionable principles:
Open company, no BS
Build with heart and balance
Don’t #@!% the customer
Play, as a team
Be the change you seek
I don’t even work there. Yet I can still see how these principles guide everyday workplace expectations. While the concepts may apply to other companies, they are stated in unique ways that match what it feels like to work for this specific company. Can you say the same for your organization’s values?
One company, many cultures.
Your organization may have one mission statement, one vision and one list of core values. However, it doesn’t have just one culture. You have as many company cultures as you have offices, stores and managers. Culture is defined by people, not words on a website. It’s constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of the people who participate in that culture.
This is why a simple, actionable set of values is essential. The people across your company relate to one another in different ways. They use different tools and tactics to do their jobs. That’s the reality of large, complex workplaces. It’s more productive to lean into local cultures than it is to fight them. Values like those from Disney and Atlassian ensure everyone applies the same guardrails when making the right decisions for their parts of the organization. They foster alignment within the chaos that is the modern workplace. They help people be themselves while connecting to a larger community they rarely get to see.
Are you in retail? Join us online this Tuesday!
Store associates, distribution center workers, delivery drivers, contact center agents: they all deserve the opportunity to do their best work. That includes robust learning and support. But 37% of retail managers say the lack of employee training is making it harder to get the job done.
I’m Zooming with Mary Beth Garcia - CEO of MOHR Retail - this Tuesday at 1130am ET to share ideas for improving the ROI of retail training. If you’re trying to make the shift from jobs to careers in hopes of attracting, retaining and enabling great employees, this is where the story must begin!
Tune in for our first ITK Rewind.
We’re giving the audience what you want on this week’s In The Know: more Karl Kapp!
Karl first appeared on our show one year ago to share proven practices for applying gamification in learning. Since then, his episode racked up the most views in ITK history. So we’re revisiting this classic installment with our first ITK Rewind. Yes, it’s a rerun … with some new info about the upcoming ATD23 conference and a special message from Karl himself.
Tune in this Wednesday, May 10 at 1130am ET on LinkedIn Live for an ITK Rewind with Karl Kapp!
Until next week, be well. JD