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Internalizing Your Company Values

Lyle Kozloff

Director of Support Engineering at GitLab

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Problem

The culture at my current company was one of the main attractions that led me to my role. The values are central to how the company operates: from hiring to promoting to the way that decisions are made. They truly are best-in-class where these things are concerned.

At the company that I was working for previously, I was one of only a small number of people within the entire organization who knew the values. These values were not used day-to-day when making decisions. They were not differentiators that brought about positive change.

Actions taken

In order for values to be a central part of your culture, they must describe how your company does things differently. One value at my old company, for example, was “people”. I think it’s probably the case that there are not many anti-people companies out there. What is this value even trying to describe? “People” is not a value that can be used to make a decision without some further qualification (at least). Which “people” are we optimizing for? Our customers? Our employees? It wasn’t a razor we could use to make decisions, and so we never did use it as a reflection point for a tough choice. Contrast that to my current company: you will not go a single day without yourself or somebody else relating the values back to the work that we’re doing.

One way my current company reinforces its values is through our discretionary bonus program. This type of bonus is awarded to those who demonstrate alignment with these core values. Any team member can nominate any other team member for these bonuses. The only bar that we set is to exemplify one of our values. That is, to focus on the behavior and the value it represented: not the monetary impact on the company.

Having a strong, values-based culture has benefits beyond just decision-making and a way to award bonuses though. In a company made up of individuals from more than 65 countries, these values represent the third culture. That is, rather than relying on cultural assumptions informed by our origins, we’re documenting, hiring to and reinforcing a way of doing things that don’t rely on sharing a home culture. Writing your company culture down and reinforcing it means that when there’s a conflict you can always point back to the source. Fewer assumptions and more documentation mean there’s a clearer path to resolving conflict and choosing the right path.

At our company, everybody knows all of this right from the beginning. They sign on agreeing with these values (in fact, we look specifically for alignment by asking STAR questions that help candidates demonstrate they’re already practicing them). They are neutral ground that everybody is free to enjoy. They define the relationships that we share, the results that we strive for, and how we move forward after each lesson.

Another thing I’ve observed (and indeed, participated in) is treating values and culture as “read/write”. As your company grows and changes your values and their expressions should get updated. During my time we introduced a hierarchy of values and have added (and removed) many subvalues and descriptors. These changes have come at all levels of the company and demonstrate our employees' engagement with company culture, but more importantly, help us achieve our mission statement of “everyone can contribute”.

The benefits of having a clearly articulated and documented culture/values help immensely in bridging cultural differences, solving conflict, and forming things like hiring processes, rewards/promotions, and increasing employee engagement. Think about how you can move your values from “words on a page” more into the forefront of how you operate.

Lessons learned

  • The criteria that you set while hiring and promoting are two areas where you can weave these values in and incentivize them. We show appreciation openly when we see employees exhibiting our values in a unique way. We even use specific emoji on Slack to note interactions that demonstrate one (or more) of our values.
  • Make your values public. The first subvalue to “Collaboration” is kindness. For me, that one ended up being a huge attractor to the company when I was looking for a new role. It resonated with me and made me look even more deeply at how the company did business.
  • Some people believe that upholding values like these is too good to be true. The important thing is to articulate the things your company actually / already values. It’s certainly okay to have some aspirational values, but culture is easier to reinforce if there’s already an alignment between how individuals see the company and their role in it and the way the values are written.

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Lyle Kozloff

Director of Support Engineering at GitLab


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