Here's Why Core Values Don't Work

Here’s Why Core Values Don’t Work

In my keynotes, I frequently poke fun at Core Values. I ask everyone in the audience who has “integrity” or “honesty” in their company core values to raise their hand, and then I congratulate them on effectively distinguishing themselves from all those companies out there that value “lying” and “deceit.” It’s odd, because at that off-site, taking a stand for integrity seemed like a good idea, but now that the poster is up on the wall, it looks obvious, and you might be wondering if your core values are truly going to influence anyone’s behavior.

There is an alternative. We frequently work with clients to develop a “Culture Code.” It’s a document (or deck, or infographic, etc.) that clarifies what is valued in the culture, and it connects what is valued to (a) success drivers in the organization, and (b) the specific behaviors that make that success a reality. Some may argue that’s exactly what Core Values Posters do, but I would argue there are some key structural differences:

  • Core values are abstract and aspirational. They define “good” in generic, absolute terms, which is why they’re rarely front-of-mind. Culture codes are situational. They define what is good within the context of your organization and your operating environment, so they provide guidance on things you face every day.
  • Core values drive towards a broad principle, so you end up in the realm of ideas rather than action. Culture codes start with the principle, and drive towards concrete behaviors, so people understand exactly what they need to do.
  • Core values are things we already all agreed on. That makes them more like lowest common denominators, which diffuses attention. Culture codes reflect a clear choice, which means they sharpen attention. It’s okay if you don’t want to behave in the ways the culture code lays out—you just can’t work here.

All cultures need “artifacts,” which was the goal of those core values posters in the first place. We think your culture artifacts should be more specific, and should revolve around what makes you successful, rather than what looks good. If you want to learn more about how to craft an effective culture code, contact us.

Photo by Martin Shreder on Unsplash

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