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Defining values and value behaviors that resonate across cultures

Updated: Jan 26, 2022

Part 1 of 2

When we don’t interculturally validate our company values and associated behaviors, we are setting ourselves up for failure.

1. Framing the issue

Companies have traditionally used Mission, Vision, Values (MVV) to define who they are: Typically, a one-pager, sometimes the proverbial poster on the wall, a section in the back of a brochure, and a page under the 'About Us' section on the website.

Some have been creative with language and use words and phrases like Purpose, Who we are, How we roll, The Way we do things.

It is important to define who you are, what you want to be famous for, and the impact you want to have in the world.

People have assumed that because values are so important, they need to have them, and they need to have a definition to explain the meaning of their value words.

Unfortunately, crafting values and value definitions is often done by a small group of decision-makers in the company, or is sometimes even outsourced to people in the marketing space.

If the work is outsourced, a small group of decision-makers in the company will vet what the branding team has come up with. If it is done by an internal team, it often results in the crafting of values and value definitions being done by the people on the team who have English as their first language, who will likely have similar cultural preferences. As a result, the values and definitions are not representative of the current and future diversity of the organization. Here are some of the ensuing challenges:

  • Defining values by giving them a definition is a very 'academic' and theoretical exercise. It is often detached from the ‘expression of the thinking, speaking and acting of the people who contribute to the organization’.

  • As a result, people don’t take the values seriously and when you ask people who work in the organization what the company values are, they typically don’t know them or don’t remember them.

  • Many values and their definitions are so ambiguous that you can take them in too many directions when it comes to behaving in accordance with them...

  • Leaving things open for cultural interpretation, especially when you have so many cultures in the organization, leads to brand pollution and decisions that harm the company’s reputation.

  • If the company culture is not global enough, it will result in difficulty attracting worldwide talent.

So, what do we do?

There are several arguments against even going through the exercise of specifying the values of an organization: Since most values and their definitions are ambiguous and unhelpful, should we stop wasting time, effort and money on them? Some argue that many companies use value words that are superfluous. For example, using the word ‘Ethical’ as one of the value words: They argue that successful organizations should already behave that way, since being ethical is the best long-term way to run an organization. And of course, ‘Teamwork’ is essential to create high engagement and develop High Performing Teams. So why should they even be mentioned as ‘the values of our organization’? One of the most important and challenging words in the land of values is Integrity. It is an ambiguous word which can be interpreted in so many different ways and yet, close to 90% of multinationals reference ethical behavior or use 'integrity' as one of their value words.

2. The example of Integrity

When you look at the word integrity from a cultural point of view there are a wide spectrum of culturally endorsed behaviors. Is it any wonder that making the word ‘integrity’ part of your value-one-pager doesn’t help you avoid corruption, fraud, bribery, and client relationship issues...? There are many examples of cultural clashes around the word Integrity. Here are a few examples.

In many cultures, it is normal and acceptable that a company invest money in meals or gifts for existing or future clients and even for clients’ family members, especially during special (religious) holidays or festivals.

One of our clients who worked in a tribal area on an oil & gas project, found out that offering the tribal leader a cow was the best way to say ‘thank you’ for his collaboration on the project. But it was a bit of a challenge to explain the expense of a cow to their finance colleagues at headquarters!  

In some cultures, you give money to people before they start the work and in others, you give money to people after they complete the work.

So, is it considered a bribe if an official at a government office (who works three jobs because his government salary doesn't allow him to provide enough for his family), asks for some extra money to get the work done before the end of the day? In some cultures, they have a formal mechanism for that; it’s called an expediting fee... The one is more informal, the other is formal and documented. In some cultures, you pay a ‘tip’ before the work starts (to encourage somebody to do a good job), in other cultures you pay a tip after good work has been done (the person receiving the tip does a good job in the hope that it will result in a tip). In other cultures, it is considered shameful to offer a tip because it is the honor of the worker to do an excellent job, and this is enough of a reward! In that situation, giving a tip would be seen as saying: "Let me give you some extra money so that next time you will do a better job..." In other words, using a common definition of integrity: “Employees consistently act in an honest and ethical manner”, is not going to be enough of a guide to know what is acceptable/permissible and what is not. When a company defines their values, these need to be an interculturally validated set of behaviors.

3. How to move forward