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Even in the best of times, entrepreneurs are guilty of overthinking. Add a worldwide crisis, and heads spin with ultimate solutions that look good on paper but fall short in practice.

Amid the turmoil, work cultures are at risk. No one knows that better than Natalie Baumgartner, chief workforce scientist at Achievers. The company is a leader in employee recognition and engagement. 

“We give employees a voice through pulse surveys, frequent check-ins and networks that allow them to learn, grow and contribute to our communities,” Baumgartner said. “It’s our culture, and we’re proud of it.”

That attitude comes particularly into play when many companies have enabled a loose operating system around remote working.

In its 2020 Culture Report, Achievers measured how well an organization understands its values and then aligns everything the company does to those values. Factors included engagement, recognition and the voice of the employee.

“We found culture alignment dropped significantly,” Baumgartner said. “In addition, organizations found themselves less able to align decision making to company values. 

“That’s not really a surprise,” she said. “After all, there was no forewarning. We didn’t understand the massive impact this pandemic would have on business. Organizations have been in crisis-management mode.”

Crisis Management Flies on ‘Plane’ Truth

Fortunately, not everything is bleak. 

“The good news is there are simple ways to foster and maintain culture alignment,” Baumgartner said. “We’re not talking about massive overhaul initiatives, which are impossible and unpalatable while still in the midst of a pandemic.”

Far from feverish, she talked with Meghan M. Biro, a Forbes analyst, brand strategist and TalentCulture chief executive officer, about how well organizations are keeping a grip on their cultures. 

Profits versus people

In many instances, organizations struggle with communicating core values. One reason is that they haven’t given them any thought. 

Their core value is earning a profit and becoming a successful business. Manufacturing great automobiles is different from how you care for your people.

“Another reason organizations don’t communicate core values that well is because they don’t pinpoint them clearly,” Biro said. “They don’t know what those core values really are.

“Communication isn’t just an isolated event,” she said. “It can’t be, ‘Oh, let’s just talk about a value we never talk about.'”

Ready or not equals success or failure

The description itself might be a misnomer. 

“Too many core values basically means they’re not core values,” Biro said. “Core values are fundamental and essential. Trying to communicate more than four or five to your workforce is going to detract from their clarity and impact.”

They also have questionable relationships to the real world. 

“Some organizations have outdated or irrelevant core values that don’t reflect their employees’ values—actual culture—or the values that will help them reach their goals—aspirational culture,” Baumgartner said. “Review values regularly. Ensure they meet current needs.

“Some organizations have too many or too complex values, making communication and alignment difficult,” she said. “Achievers recommends having four to six values that are one line each. Values need to be lived and breathed every single day to have true impact.”

Not once and done

Such repetition will have a reinforcing effect.

“Many organizations communicate core values just once as part of onboarding,” Baumgartner said. “Try to make communicating core values part of daily messages. For example, Achievers incorporates one core value into every company town hall.

“At many companies, values are often written on the wall or in employee handbooks, but not communicated from leaders and managers,” she said. “This means employees don’t see how they impact their roles and may not align to values day to day.”

Don’t succumb to turning on the fire hose and making employees drink.

“If you’re trying to communicate and reinforce 10 core values, no one will remember them or be able to keep them in mind when taking action,” Baumgartner said. “Plus, core values need to be meaningful to each organization. Not generic.

“We have to prioritize a focus on core values to reap the benefits of aligning around them,” she said. “Your organizational values need to speak to who your organization is and how you want to do business.”

Engagement is a four-letter word

More than in any other area of employer-employee interaction, for core values, words matter.

“What you do is as important as what you say,” Baumgartner said. “That’s why we talk about communication, recognition and action as the pillars of culture alignment.

“Less is more when it comes to core values,” she said. “At the Achievers Workforce Institute we have identified four to six core values as the sweet spot. They’re just the right number to bring your culture to life each day.”

Eyes on the star

The values will have greater meaning when tied to specific aspects of each business.

“Values need to be accurate to company culture, both actual and aspirational culture,” Baumgartner said. “Then they can be the North Star for all action, communication and recognition.”

Strategies can help boost alignment, which starts with how well leaders talk with and listen to their people. It’s hard for workers to align with their company if they don’t know what they’re aligning with.

“Let’s talk about communication,” Biro said. “Infuse formal and informal conversations with values and culture—from a town hall to a shout out by a manager.

“Alignment requires understanding,” she said. “Make sure your workforce can connect core values in your work culture to an actual way they work such as teamwork or accountability.”

Remember that people like to hear their names as well as others.

“Recognition is an amazing way to improve alignment,” Biro said. “When managers recognize employees, when employees recognize each other, that reinforces behaviors in a really key way.”

Corporate survival hinges on their culture

Baumgartner emphasized that if each of the three core pillars aligns with corporate values, they boost culture alignment.

“Align your values to recognition so every time someone is recognized it is for one of the core company values,” she said. “This helps employees add values-based behaviors to their everyday routines.

“Communicate the values frequently,” Baumgartner said. “Ensure communication aligns with values. For example, if transparency is one of your values, then your communication should be transparent.”

Seeing leads to doing

That ties back into values-based recognition.

“Achievers has a saying: What gets recognized, gets repeated,” Baumgartner said. “So, what behaviors do you want to see repeated?

“Actions should align to values whenever possible,” she said. “Part of every decision-making process should include reviewing values and considering how they impact the action being considered.”

Be alert to any inconsistencies.

“If you have to make a decision that goes against your values, make sure you speak to that,” Baumgartner said. “Pillar No. 1 is communication. Let employees know why you made that decision and how you plan to realign to values.

“Bringing values to life through stories and examples is a powerful way to increase culture alignment,” she said. “It’s the secret sauce to organizational success.”

Theirs are Stories to Behold

This is closely related to spotlighting achievements.

“Recognition of culturally-aligned behavior is the No. 1 way to drive a powerful culture,” Baumgartner said. “As leaders, we must be the culture carriers that set the stage for the rest of our organization. Bring culture alignment to every aspect of how you do business.”

Leaders need to care about alignment. They can’t just say the word and expect the workforce to salute smartly and fall in place. Alignment has to mean something to employees whether they’re on site or working from home.

“Get involved,” Biro said. “There are great examples of CEOs who have been holding town halls and even informal meetings and modeling engagement, listening and participation.

“Leaders are great storytellers,” she said. “Telling a story around a core value—giving it resonance—can be so effective.”

Reconciling tough moves

Naturally, reality can interfere with perfectly fine alignment plans.

“Let’s talk about those hard decisions that don’t align with core values,” Biro said. “Leaders need to make that clear, talk about that, talk about why, and commit to bringing the work culture back to alignment.”

How to manage great teams—and yourself

The momentum starts with the person in charge.

“Your values are your North Star,” Baumgartner said. “Whenever you’re writing a communication, sending a recognition or taking an action, consider how you can align to your values.

“Be a values champion,” she said. “Help employees understand how values should help them with their own communication, recognition and action every day.”

The culture injection starts with and continues from the first day on the job.

“Rely on values to develop and hire as well,” Baumgartner said. “This doesn’t conflict with diversity goals. Instead, shared values empower diverse teams to have greater impact when everyone works together based on the core company values.”

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Jim Katzaman
Jim Katzaman is a manager at Largo Financial Services. A writer by trade, he graduated from Lebanon Valley College, Pennsylvania, with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He enlisted in the Air Force and served for 25 years in public affairs – better known in the civilian world as public relations. He also earned an Associate’s Degree in Applied Science in Public Affairs. Since retiring, he has been a consultant and in the federal General Service as a public affairs specialist. He also acquired life and health insurance licenses, which resulted in his present affiliation with Largo Financial Services. In addition to expertise in financial affairs, he gathers the majority of his story content from Twitter chats. This has led him to publish about a wide range of topics such as social media, marketing, sexual harassment, workplace trends, productivity and financial management. Medium has named him a top writer in social media.

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