Culture is not about concepts; it is about core beliefs. Culture isn’t about platitudes; it’s about standards. Culture is not a document that hangs on the wall. Culture is what people believe, how they behave, and the results their behavior produces. A written statement is important because it helps clarify the desired cultural standards, but documents don’t build culture, people do.
It is common for organizations to have a “core values statement.” Most of the time the statement is memorialized in some kind of poster that is prominently placed in key locations in the organization’s office or facility.
However, surprisingly few people have stopped to consider what is actually meant by the term “core values.” Most people have a pretty good idea of what is meant by “values.” Values are the guiding principles that a person or organization consider to be important. They are the standards that are (or should be) used as a reference point for decisions and action.
However, people are not as clear with regard to the meaning of the word “core.” In the many workshops we have conducted over the years, we often ask people what the word “core” means. The responses are consistent:
These definitions, though helpful, don’t go deep enough. The word “core” actually derives from the Latin “cor,” which means “heart.” It is reflected in medical terms like: coronary bypass surgery, and the coronary unit of a hospital. Thus the term “core values” is a description not only of the standards and guiding principles that are essential to an organization, it also describes where the values should reside: In the heart.
By this definition, many organizations don’t have core values; they have poster values. While the values and principles might be clearly displayed on nicely framed posters throughout the organization, the essential question is: Are the values deeply embedded in the hearts of people?
This is the great challenge of leading and building culture. In order to build an elite culture, you must get the values off the posters and into the hearts of people. The reason this is such a significant challenge is that believing something at the heart level is a deeply personal decision. You can’t believe for another person; nor can you force them to believe. It is a choice — a decision of the heart — that each person must make.
There is a profound difference between a concept in your head and a core belief in your heart.
- A concept is an idea or notion. A core belief is a deeply held conviction to which a person is tenaciously committed.
- A concept is easily absorbed through popular narrative, media sound-bites, and social pressure. A core belief is carefully, intentionally, and purposely chosen.
- Agreeing with a concept requires minimal effort, little self-awareness, and no real accountability. Committing to a core belief requires deep inner work, disciplined self-reflection, and consistent accountability.
- Under pressure people will compromise a concept. Under pressure people will stay faithful to a core belief.
- Agreeing with a concept is easy. Committing to and living by a core belief is hard.
Obviously, there’s a problem if what people believe and how they behave is not in alignment with the statement of core values.
Because of the critical role that leaders play in the culture-building process, here is something every leader must understand: Culture starts with what you believe, how you behave, and the experience your behavior delivers to the people you lead. The values of the culture must become core for you, which means you must do the deep inner work and disciplined self-reflection required to put them on your heart.
The responsibility of a leader is to demonstrate what a belief looks like through their behavior and the experience their behavior delivers. Something very powerful happens when a leader says, “This is what we believe. These are our standards,” and then the leader consistently behaves in a way that aligns with the standards.
This is precisely what it means to lead by example. You don’t get the culture you proclaim. You get the culture you practice, promote, and permit.
When leaders don’t practice what they preach, it is a culture killer. Nothing will destroy culture faster than when leaders say one thing but do something different. The strongest experience people have of the culture of the organization is the attitude and behavior of leaders.
Keep in mind that living the culture is most important when it is most difficult. Challenging events and situations are “culture defining moments.” How a leader responds under pressure reveals the character of the leader and shapes the culture of the organization.
Culture is built by behavior, and it starts with the behavior of leaders. The bottom line for leaders: The values of the culture can’t be mere concepts; they must become core beliefs. If the culture isn’t happening in you, it won’t happen through you.
Do the work.