June 23, 2023

Culture vs. Values: What’s the Difference?

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Key takeaways:

  • Company culture describes a company’s work environment, informed by the collective interactions of its staff.
  • Company values are the fundamental principles that help companies determine right from wrong.
  • By intentionally and strategically choosing your company values, you can shape a positive company culture that increases employee retention, staff satisfaction, and company growth.

Check out our Employee Engagement Software Guide for solutions to engage and motivate your workforce.

What are values?

Company values are principles, ethics, morals, and beliefs that guide an employer’s decision-making process. They help distinguish right and wrong, like a company’s moral compass. Examples include concepts like teamwork, inclusion, innovation, and trust.

Another way to conceptualize values is by picturing your company as a tree. Values make up the tree’s roots, forming the foundation for the rest of your company. A strong root system will affect the health and success of the tree; in other words, a good set of values can help your company realize its business objectives.

What is culture?

Company culture describes the overall work environment of your company. It represents both stated and implied external and internal company procedures, processes, policies, behaviors, and interactions. For example, company culture might be a policy that requires coming into work promptly at eight and supporting team discussions in the break room during the first 30 minutes of the workday.

You can consider culture as an embodiment of your company’s core values. If values represent the tree’s roots, the culture is its trunk, branches, leaves, and fruit. A positive company culture means a conducive environment that makes your staff feel comfortable and promotes your business’s vision.

What is the difference between culture and values?

Companies frequently use company culture and company values interchangeably, but they’re not the same. The main differences are the people who determine them, their impact on the company, and their adaptability to changing business needs.

If you imagine your company as a tree, one term defines its roots — the foundational principles of your company — while the other describes its fruit — the manifestation of those principles.

Culture vs. Values: A Tree Analogy
Culture Values
Decision-makers Landscaper Gardener
Executives involved, but typically determined by the employee collective. Determined by higher-level C-Suite or business executives.
Impact Leaves/flowers/fruit Roots
Representative of internal current work environment, current processes, and practices. Foundational to the company’s morals, ethos, and vision; the external company brand.
Adaptability Seasonal Perennial
Ever-changing, depending on health of your values or unforeseen environmental shifts. Mostly permanent, unless massive company shift.

Understanding the difference between these can help you be intentional about creating values that are representative of your company’s actions. For example, if your company values inclusion, your culture should reflect your commitment to a safe working space by:

Decision-makers

Although executives can control aspects of company culture, such as directing or enforcing company procedures, employee actions inform most of it. Think of employees like landscapers; they shape, change, and maintain the overall tree.

In contrast, C-suite executives typically determine the company’s core values. Think of them as the gardener who plants the tree and works with landscapers to ensure it thrives. While employees may advise executives on what values to choose, executives have the final say on what’s most important to the company.

Impact

Company culture mainly impacts your internal staff, while company values reach further. In terms of your company tree, its leaves and fruit affect only the tree itself and nearby neighbors. Meanwhile, its root system can affect the rest of the forest, determining how your clients, customers, and competitors view your brand and health.

Adaptability

Culture is more susceptible to change, often changing with the seasons as different outside forces pummel your tree. For instance, if the economy changes, your company culture will adapt to accommodate other workforce structures but still look to your values for guidance.

Values, on the other hand, are perennial — or primarily permanent. Unless a massive change occurs that requires you to re-evaluate your company’s principles — such as a lightning bolt to the tree following a company buyout — values remain the roots of your organization and direct the expression of your culture.

Culture fit vs. values fit

Culture and values fit are optional recruitment metrics used during the hiring process to predict how well an employee will mesh with a company. Culture fit and values fit are often confused and misused during recruitment.

Jessica Bantom, a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) consultant, defines culture fit as the characteristics of candidates similar to the rest of the organization, like personality, behavior, education, credentials, interests, and work styles.

On the other hand, she sees values fit as “aligning with the organization’s ethos.” It measures whether an employee’s personal philosophies, work ethic, and objectives match the company’s core values.

Risks of culture fit over values fit

If used correctly, these metrics can help you identify candidates with the proper skillsets to succeed in a role, collaborate with current staff, and further company objectives. However, be wary of using culture fit exclusively, as it can inadvertently promote discriminatory hiring behavior.

As Bantom explains, “If organizations overcompensate when it comes to culture fit, they run the risk of limiting innovation through lack of diversity, propagating groupthink, and adopting exclusionary practices because their employee persona is so restrictive.”

In other words, hiring candidates based on cultural fit can promote homogeneous workforces at the expense of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds. Moreover, it can limit you to evaluating candidates based on shared qualities, including implicit biases such as gender, race, age, beauty, affinity, disability, or proximity.

Implementing culture fit and values fit

If your organization decides to use culture fit, be aware of its propensity for bias, and consider using only values fit or culture add instead. You can teach culture, but not necessarily values.

“Characteristics of a culture fit can be developed whereas those of values fit are generally inherent to a person’s character,” notes Bantom. “It’s easier to skill someone up than to rewire who they are inside.”

Implementing culture-fit and values-fit questions in your organization should include more than just culture-based or values-based questioning during interviews. It should also be about training your recruitment team and hiring managers about the differences between culture and values, the associated risks, and how to evaluate both characteristics in candidates properly.

For example, Linda Lee, Chief People and Culture Officer at Velocity Global, uses their company’s VIBES Behavioral Interview Training program to teach managers about their core values, their purpose, and how to look for them in candidates. Implementing such a program for your company can create hiring consistency, reduce chances for biases, and improve the overall recruitment and onboarding experience.

Also read: Recruitment Strategies for 2023: How to Prepare for the Future

Culture and values in practice

Understanding the company culture you want can help you choose the right values to influence it. For example, Lee explains that a company culture of scheduling meetings and interviews in the middle of the day to accommodate employees’ busy mornings and evenings can showcase a company’s value of work-life balance.

Culture examples

Clan, adhocracy, market, and hierarchy are the four major types of company culture. Although only some cultures fit within these four categories, they can help you determine your company’s unique culture blend:

  • Clan: These companies focus on family, employee wellness, and growing together. Values that support clan cultures include teamwork, trust, inclusion, collaboration, and respect. Many startups or small businesses exhibit clan culture.
  • Adhocracy: These companies are fast-paced and focus on creating new products and taking risks. Values that support adhocracy cultures include creativity, innovation, flexibility, and adaptability. Tech companies and some startups embody adhocracy cultures.
  • Market: These companies focus on results and staying ahead of their competition. Values that support market cultures include ambition, motivation, competitiveness, and perfectionism. Companies in finance or technology can be market cultures.
  • Hierarchy: These are risk-averse companies that focus on orderly policies and procedures and maintain classic hierarchical structures. Values that support hierarchy cultures include pragmatism, steadiness, organization, and informed decision-making. Many traditional corporations are hierarchical cultures.

Values examples

Values are as varied as there are species of trees. At TechnologyAdvice, we have five core values that we live by:

  • Be transparent: We are direct and open with all members of our organization. One way we live this value is through one-on-one meetings every two weeks with our managers where we can be open and honest about our successes and struggles.
  • Crave knowledge: We are curious and relentless in learning new things to further our professional and personal growth. We support this value through things like reimbursing expenses for professional development books.
  • Value each other: We look to recognize others’ achievements, help others when they’re struggling, and encourage everyone to succeed. Beyond celebrating accomplishments through our employee engagement platform, we host regular DEI events to recognize and celebrate the differences among all team members.
  • Make calculated decisions: We don’t dive headfirst into something until we’ve researched, collaborated with the team, and understood its impact on the business. Our teams exemplify this by seeking to understand the ins and outs of a problem before acting.
  • Challenge mediocrity: We strive to think creatively to solve problems and produce results above expectations. We exemplify this value by pivoting strategies when necessary and being comfortable, flexible, and ambitious in the event of change.

Values and culture work together

Values and culture are two sides of the same coin; you need both for a successful company.

Undefined or poorly executed values can erode company culture, resulting in process inefficiencies or disharmony among coworkers. Bogdan Apostol, co-founder and CEO of Nestor, says choosing values for the sake of having them isn’t enough. “[They] need to be authentic, reflect the beliefs of the entire organization, and paint a clear picture of how they will help the mission,” he explains.

Meanwhile, poor company culture can stifle the realization of your company’s vision as well as the faith and loyalty of your staff. “Company culture and the values that make it need to be reflected in every action,” says Apostol. “It must become an unconscious way of doing things.”

In other words, creating a values structure that informs and reflects your company’s culture will improve employee retention, spark innovation, and help your company realize its goals faster.

Read Employee Engagement Software Guide and HR Software Guide for solutions to understand the ways your company culture and values impact your staff.


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