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Values are words, culture is behaviors

Values and culture

Values are beliefs, attitudes and opinions that the group members consider essential for their life.

Values are expressed by words or sentences that you put on a wall or a website. Sometimes values are not reached yet, but they guide the group in its journey. Some examples: passion, trust, respect, kindness, equality, transparency, accountability.

Culture comprises behaviors that are expected and considered normal by people within a group. Culture is expressed in the actions you do every day.

Culture is supposed to be aligned with values, but it might not be there yet. E.g. a company can say that it values equality, but it is far from true when you look closer. It might be that they are still on their journey, or it might be that they actually don’t care.

If you want your values to matter, you have to put some effort into them.

Supporting values

The convenience of using values is that you can express them with a single word or a sentence. They allow you to communicate and align quicker. But without referring to them in everyday life, there is a high chance they are dead weight. You need to establish a culture driven by values to bring them into life.

There is another side to the compactness - they might be ambiguous. For example, “passion” is often included in the values list, but what does it actually mean? There was a situation when I shared some ideas with an executive, and he yelled at me in response. Then he wrote me a private email: “I’m sorry, I was passionate”. No, such behavior cannot be justified by “passion”. So, be sure to have occasional discussions about values.

Establishing a culture

How do you establish a culture around a value - i.e. how do you make a behavioral change in a group? From what I learned, the only instrument is “little nudges”. Like the river gradually shapes its banks, you can apply only three little actions:

  1. demonstrate the desired behavior yourself;
  2. encourage others when they show the same behavior;
  3. disapprove of behaviors that contradict the desirable one.

The first one is easy: if you genuinely believe in the value of the behavior, you are already expressing it every day.

The second point is a bit harder to do; you need to make an effort here. Software development is still a competitive male-dominated area, and we are not used to encouraging each other. You have to notice small things and let people know that you notice them. Use a small conversation at the coffee machine, drop a message in the chat, have a minute of acknowledgement at the 1:1 or the retrospective meeting.

The third one is the toughest. It requires a high level of psychological safety for everyone to be comfortable with expressing criticism. It is a bit easier when you have a leading/managing title - you can organize 1:1s to talk to people in private; younger and less experienced team members look up to you. Even then, giving negative feedback can be challenging. The “Radical Candor” book helped me get better at this, but there is still a journey ahead.

The challenge of values

The values are not just about aligning. It is acknowledging that we are not perfect, and we want to grow in a specific direction. Life is tough, 50-100-1000 people in a company cannot follow the values impeccably. But you also cannot move towards your values without supporting and challenging each other.

This post is partially inspired by the ”Principles of Technology Leadership” talk by Brian Cantrill. Watch how he goes crazy - it is funny and makes you think.
I can also recommend an episode on culture from my favorite "Soft Skills Engineering" podcast.
Plus this "Designing cultural transformations" talk by Ryn Daniels from a LeadDev event has a great example.

Cover photo by Matthias Schröder on Unsplash

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