Core Values Are Not Enough

Core values seem to be somewhat popular among companies that get involved in culture work. It's almost a necessary box to tick. Gather your staff for an off-site, have them reflect about their personal values, then the corporate values, and then narrow down and word-smith your list of values so they can then be printed into posters you put on the wall. Congratulations, you now all agree that "honesty" and "respect" are good things.

Forgive my snark there, but I think we need to be just a little more "honest" about these lists of core values that are being generated. It's not that the values themselves are bad or wrong--they are all good, and they all reflect a very clear intention by the parties involved about what kind of organization they really want to work in and for. In that respect, I like core values. It is an attempt to take a stand, and say "these things matter here."

The problem is, many of the values lists end up taking a stand on issues where everyone was already on one side. We pick the values that we all agree on, and in doing so, we end up pushing them up the scale towards generic and bland. If we end up simply agreeing that honesty and respect are good things, we've missed the point.

The real point of taking a stand on core values should be to drive the success of the enterprise. You're not saying that these values are generically good things--you're saying that we must all value these things if we want this organization to succeed. When you have that lens, you end up with different core values, or at least a different understanding of them. Earlier this year I made reference to some work I did with a small nonprofit that chose a more specific core value as their number one value: "We have each other's backs." They chose that very specifically because it helped them succeed in their unique environment. The number one core value at Zappos is "Deliver WOW through service." Actually amazing your customers (wow!) is critical to success for an online retailer.

So to be clear, I'm not "against" core values, and if you have them, or are developing them, I'm not criticizing here. But I am pushing you to be more disciplined and focused about what your core values are and what they truly mean. Your core values should be tied directly to your success, rather than being generally agreeable. And they should be lines in the sand that are not necessarily easy to get across. It should take some effort to uphold those values, otherwise why name them?

The work of defining your culture will invariably go beyond naming your core values. It involves a deep understanding of what drives success, as well as knowledge of the specific capacities your organization needs to develop in order to achieve that success. Only when you understand what makes your culture strong will you be able to articulate values to live by.

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3 Comments

  1. 16.09.2015 at 7:53 am

    Jamie – I couldn’t agree more. Core Values are meaningless if they are what Jim Collins has called “Get in the Game” values. Nobody would argue that honesty is a bad value to have, but it is a “get in the game” value. It is not unique and doesn’t differentiate one company’s culture over another. In comparison, the “have each others backs” example you provide is great, because clearly not all companies, few in fact, have this as a core value. I believe the most important part of values after discovering those which are truly unique for an organization, is to LIVE the values and to make them clear and then ensure they are non-negotiable. Hiring and Firing should be built upon a foundation of core values, and that includes hiring and firing of employees, of course, but also of partners, and even clients/members/customers. Values alignment only happens if you are relentless, but you can’t be relentless about something unclear, so I love your post for helping folks understand the need for clear and meaningful values at the CORE. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!

  2. 17.09.2015 at 11:02 am

    Jamie, Thanks for this article. I agree with you, when organizations have core values that are aligned with their strategic goals then a path to success begins to emerge that creates a shared language around who we are, what we do and how we succeed.

  3. 17.09.2015 at 6:57 pm

    Agree with your premise about living your shared values.
    In our book “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations,” we advocate that everyone should have two jobs: their regular job and to be a steward for the culture with an irrevocable license to lead by the shared values. That means standing up and speaking up to defend and embody the shared values, even to the hierarchical leaders.
    I learned this lesson the hard way over the years when caring colleagues called my behavior as inconsistent with our shared values, and I acknowledged them for their courage in speaking up.
    Our organizations jelled and then soared.

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