One of the real challenges of diversifying your team is that – at the risk of stating the obvious – your workplace is going to feel different, because it will include more difference. And that’s not always a comfortable feeling.

I see small companies struggle with this all the time. For a small team, every new hire risks being disruptive, and if you branch out from your demographic norms, whatever those are (age-wise, ethnicity-wise, gender-wise, ability-wise, and so on), that can feel higher risk.

When we feel uncomfortable with a prospective new hire, it can be easy to fall back on “culture fit” as an excuse for sticking with same-same demographics. And I’m not talking here about overt bigotry – I’m talking about its subtler cousin, cognitive bias. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wondering whether someone who doesn’t fit the usual profile is going to fit in, be it because they’re an immigrant with an accent, significantly older or younger than the rest of the team, a woman of colour, seemingly oblivious to your sense of humour, or otherwise different from the other folks on your team.

The key distinction here is between culture and values. You don’t need people to fit your culture – but you do need them to reflect your values.

Culture Is Less Intentional Than You Think… So Stop Holding It Sacred.

Your organizational culture is a bit like your personality: You may have honed some aspects of it, but you didn’t choose it consciously. As Shanley Kane brilliantly put it:

Culture is about power dynamics, unspoken priorities and beliefs, mythologies, conflicts, enforcement of social norms, creation of in/out groups and distribution of wealth and control inside companies. Culture is usually ugly. It is as much about the inevitable brokenness and dysfunction of teams as it is about their accomplishments.

I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that culture is usually ugly, but it certainly can be, and it’s a leader’s job to be mindful of what culture we create and how it can become better, more inclusive, and more conducive to doing excellent work.

And while Kane rightly points out that much of culture is unconscious, that isn’t to say you shouldn’t work on defining and nurturing the culture you want your company to embody; it’s simply to recognize that “culture” demands conscious (and conscientious) choices on your part, or it will become a force for exclusion.

Here’s my suggestion: Stop worrying about your corporate culture and focus on your company’s values.

I know, I know: Lots of companies have vacuous “vision and values” statements that suck. Your values can, and should, be vital. They should be communicated to every employee before they’re hired, instilled into every key decision-making process, and discussed often. They should be living words that you wrestle with.

How To Have Organizational Values That Actually Mean Something

When I was at Raised Eyebrow, for example, one of our core values was, “We praise each other.” (We had several others that focused on honesty, continual learning, sharing knowledge, empowering our clients, and so on.) Praising each other looked different for every team member: Some did it by speaking directly to a teammate (we provided sheets of gold star stickers for everyone to hand out as recognition of each other’s accomplishments), others by speaking up in team meetings to make sure everyone knew how a colleague had contributed to a success, and managers were tasked with bringing that value to performance evaluations.

Every month, we held an all-hands meeting that consisted in part of reviewing each of our values, and engaging with it – how were we doing with embodying this value? Where were we falling down? What were some examples where we’d seen this value in action? What were some missed opportunities?

We spent a lot of time on this, because we learned that focusing on our values created room for raising difficult subjects – and it also helped us all focus on the big picture and realign to our highest aspirations as a business. When we discussed our values, we brought our biggest and best selves to the table, and checked our egos in favour of the greater good.

That may sound lofty, but isn’t that what you want? Employees who are fired up about doing their very best work?

A values focus is the best way to nurture intrinsic motivation that I know of.

We took our values focus and applied it everywhere we could. Performance reviews incorporated our values, as did our process for choosing clients and projects. If a client wasn’t a values fit, we said no.

Destroying the Status Quo (Because the Status is not Quo1)

Values are something you can hire for; they’re something you can evaluate staff on; and they should be things that any employee can work towards embodying, without compromising who they are. (Even shy and reserved team members can usually handle a quick “Good job” and a gold star.)

Culture fit matters only insofar as it translates as “values fit.” If “culture fit” is code for “looks like us and talks like us,” it’s a problem for you and your business, because you are sending a message to many prospective employees that they are not welcome – and depriving your business of the many benefits of a diverse team.

Try this: list out the qualities you think constitute your company’s culture.

  • What makes your workplace stand out from the crowd?
  • How does it feel to work where you work?
  • What are the unspoken rules of working there? (For example: Do you have an espresso machine in the kitchen? You may expect your colleagues to be high-energy and have sophisticated taste.)
  • How would you describe a typical day at the office, in ten words or less?

Now ask yourself these questions, to discern the difference between your culture and your values:

  • Ten years from now, what impact would you like your company to have in order to feel like your work has had meaning?
  • How would you like it to feel to work where you work?
  • How would you describe an ideal day at the office, in ten words or less?
  • What qualities could your workplace espouse more deeply in order to be an even better place to work?

Culture is the status quo; values are the standards you hold yourself to.

And once you’re focused on your values rather than maintaining the status quo, you’ll find there’s a lot more room at the table for a diverse team – without compromising on sharing the common ground that matters most.