Cultural DNA: Why Your Employees Must Live It in Their Daily Lives

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Today, I’d like to share with you a case study on the importance of values and how you make them real.

I’m using as my case study company Guidewire Software, which I learned of through a New York Times Corner Office interview with CEO Marcus Ryu.

In the interview, Mr. Ryu shares how the six founders of the company created their values and their culture:

We said we have to consecrate our principles in a document that we will refer to over and over. This will be our DNA and every new person who joins the company will read the document. We put a great deal of thought into this, thinking of it almost like a constitution that will guide our future actions.”

Simply defining company values

They also not only identified their values, but also gave each one a simple, easy to understand definition.

We wanted to create an enduring business with a very strong set of values. We chose integrity, rationality and collegiality. Integrity is: simply tell the truth … No. 2 is rationality, which is to make decisions based on facts and logic … The final one is collegiality, which means minimum hierarchy.”

And yet, Mr. Ryu goes on to share this challenge:

The thing I most dislike in an employee is two-facedness, where they manage up in a very diplomatic and collegial fashion, but they’re a tyrant down. That’s a very common duality that you see in the business world, and it’s pernicious because you may not realize the problem for a long time. One of the great dangers for people in my kind of role is that people are always so deferential to you. They’re always so solicitous and careful about your needs that you may get the false impression that this is just the way they are, when in fact they may be just doing that only in this very narrow context, and they are indifferent elsewhere.

We’ve had a couple very painful examples where I thought someone seemed very competent, doing a great job, really responsive, and then found out that their team was in agony and ready to quit the company. It was almost a Jekyll and Hyde kind of situation. It was just shocking to me because I would never have detected it on my own. It’s a great challenge in organizations to make sure you somehow provide a conduit for people to get that across.”

You need more than a document to codify culture

Clearly, this kind of behavior violates the value of “collegiality.” So where did the founders’ plan to create a strong, values-based culture that would “guide our future actions” fall apart? They relied on a document as the primary means of conveying the culture to new employees.

While it’s certainly important to codify your culture and what is most important to you for the organization to succeed, you cannot – indeed, you must not – rely on a document new employees read (and likely promptly forget).

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DNA is alive – if you want your cultural DNA to live and thrive, you must breathe life into every day. You must empower all employees, everywhere, to notice and appreciate those values being lived by others.

This makes your values come off a cold document and become real in the daily work – to truly guide the actions and behaviors. The management aphorism “You get what you recognize and reward” is very true. So recognize and reward your values being vibrantly lived, every day.

What values do you see being lived (or violated) in your organization?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at