“We’re driven, we get stuff done. But it can be pretty abrasive as well, so we’re afraid to make mistakes.”

“We’re warm, friendly, and mission-driven. But at times we can be soft and miss deadlines, and I don’t think we’re good at holding anyone accountable.”

“It’s a very data-focused, engineering driven organization. But we’ve been described as ‘tech-bros,’ and hardly anyone working here is older than 30.”

How would you describe your company culture? For many high-performing clients that The Table Group works with, there are plenty of positives, as evidenced by the examples above. But no culture is perfect, and so when we’ve pushed our clients to dive deeper into what their culture really meant, we nearly always found a downside. 

As a leader, what you may not realize is that you are almost certainly doing things to reinforce the positives and negatives in your company culture. And with some of the recent colossal cultural failures at infamous unicorn companies, we can clearly see how the negative, unintentional, accidental aspects of culture can cause lasting damage.

What are accidental values?

The equation for culture equals your company’s explicit, intentional, true (or “core”) values, plus your company’s implicit, unintentional, but also true (or “accidental”) values.   

Core values are the intentional shared behaviors, beliefs and attributes within an organization. For Southwest Airlines, a core value like “Warrior Spirit” is what encourages a pilot to rush down to the tarmac to help the baggage handlers load bags and get the plane back on time. For Airbnb, the core value of “Be a Host” encourages employees to welcome anyone who sets foot into their offices with warmth and respect.

Accidental values, on the other hand, are the shared behaviors, beliefs, and attributes in the workplace that are unintentional. They are the values that bubble up, well … accidentally, and sometimes covertly, until all of a sudden you look around the office and say, “Wow, is it weird that everyone here has a blue mohawk, a pet chihuahua-doodle, and likes polka music?” 

Both sets of values inform culture. However, if leaders let them, accidental values can have just as much, if not more, influence on culture than core values, which can undermine the effectiveness of your core values that you’ve spent months or years on cultivating.

The Danger of Accidental Values

Accidental values can grow within an organization from two primary sources:

1. Existing Core Values

The first, surprisingly, can be from existing core values. While core values all sound positive and certainly may make you unique and successful, they can be taken too far and sometimes misinterpreted. 

This is what happens when a value of “hard-work” turns into “burns people out,” “adaptable” morphs into “chaotic,” or “fun” turns into “we hire exclusively from a pool of circus clowns.” Unless you’re a circus clown company, this makes no sense. 

Up until a couple of years ago, Uber’s core value of “toe-stepping,” while intending to encourage employees to not be afraid of conflict, actually ended up encouraging some employees to engage in conflict in the workplace, a major detriment to their company culture.

2. Leadership is Drawn to Certain Attributes

The second source for accidental values can be even more dangerous. Leadership all may consistently be drawn toward (i.e. value) the same attributes. Inevitably, the influence of those values may unintentionally cascade to the rest of the workforce. 

These behaviors, beliefs, and attributes that have nothing to do with your company’s actual core values can start to pervade the organization because the leadership team is made up of mostly ______ (introverts, surfers, young hipsters, engineers, eco-friendly hippies, dog-lovers, cat-lovers, circus clown-lovers, etc.). 

These attributes may not even be objectively negative, but unfortunately what happens at organizations with accidental values is that employees, prospective employees, or even customers will inevitably see this and feel left out. Just think about how awkward the poor employee who shows up without her clown costume on the first day of work must feel.  

Patrick Lencioni, one of the founders of The Table Group, often talks about core values being the ‘limits of diversity.’ This means that no company should tolerate an employee that diverges from their core values. But in all other respects, diversity is critical to an organization’s success (in fact, research shows that inclusive teams make better decisions and are more innovative).

And for some organizations, diversity is limited — not just by their core values, but by the accidental values that reinforce certain behaviors or attributes throughout an organization, and that will without a doubt undermine core values over time.

So, what can you do about it?

Here are two steps you can take to follow to avoid conflating your accidental values and your core values:

1. Ensure Leadership Owns the Process

To avoid confusion between your accidental values and your core values, your leadership team must own the process of communicating and embodying your core values every day. Your leadership team cannot delegate implementing culture and core values to HR, to a consulting firm, or to a values and culture committee. These groups can help implement a plan around culture and values, but the CEO and leadership team have to be the drivers of the program. A leadership team is under the microscope in many ways, and their behaviors have a larger influence on the rest of your organization.

2. Be Clear About What You Want

Define your core values and remember that they may come at a cost. You may have some really smart employees who don’t have a “Warrior Spirit” to go all out every day or who don’t have the desire to “Be a Host” to everyone they encounter. But you can’t pick out what you don’t want unless you have a pretty clear idea of what you do want.

As a leadership team, have an open and honest conversation about the not-so-positive behaviors, beliefs, or attributes that you see in your workplace. Identify where those accidental values are coming from. Are they from core values misinterpreted or from the values and traits of leadership? 

If you determine these behaviors stem from a core value misinterpreted, it’s time to over-communicate what your core values mean and what they don’t mean, or revisit them entirely

Reinforce that it’s possible to be driven but not abrasive, adaptable but not indecisive, and warm and friendly but not soft and unaccountable. If your accidental value comes directly from your leaders, then it may be time to overhaul your human systems to not only recognize that non-introverts, non-surfers, non-young hipsters, non-engineers are welcome at your company, but also to put a plan in place to diversify against your accidental value.

Make the Effort

Now that you have a thorough understanding of the difference between accidental values and core values, how they impact each other, and their effect on your company culture, you can get to work. Here are three steps you can take to clarify these values and what they mean to your workforce:

1. Have a Meeting with Leadership

Get your leadership team together and identify your core values and accidental values. List out which core values you want your team to embody every day and which accidental values you want to eliminate from your company culture. If necessary, redefine your core values entirely to align with your vision and mission for your company.

2. Over-Communicate Your Core Values

After you’ve defined your core values and identified your accidental values, over-communicate them to the rest of your workforce. Have a company all-hands meeting to reinforce your core values, ask your people managers to discuss core values with their teams, send emails, put up posters and other media, etc. so employees have your core values in writing.

3. Revisit Your Human Systems

Your core values and accidental values inevitably affect the hiring process, as well as other people processes. If they have changed during this evaluation process, be sure to reevaluate these systems to make sure they align with your company’s direction.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not the number of flavors of sparkling water you have in your kitchen, or the plushness of your bean bags that matter most in defining your culture. It is the combination of your core values and accidental values. Make the effort to identify and work on both.

Glenn Lyday is a Principal Consultant with The Table Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations, and the people who work within them, become healthier and more effective. Glenn received his MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.