Rethinking the Value of Core Values

“Do core values really matter?” Before I could pause to think I abruptly replied, “Yes, absolutely.” I had just finished giving a speech in Texas that touched on the topic of corporate values and one of the attendees had pulled me aside afterwards. Though sounding confident in the moment, that evening I began to reflect more deeply on that simple yet complex question.

For starters, it’s a reasonable question to ask, and it’s one that I’ve come back to often in my work with organizations of all sizes. I’ve since added to it, reflecting on questions such as these:

·        How can we know if a company’s values are a reflection of reality, or a contrived attempt to reinforce a façade?

·        Should company leaders be the sole source of a values statement? If not, who else?

·        Do companies have “unique” values, or do values overlap from one business to another? And if they do, does that matter?

·        If a company dresses its values in fresh, hip language spoken with bravado, have they actually created something different than the staid traditionalists?

·        What is the role of core values in an organization? How must companies adapt to the present landscape? And is a company’s values statement actually true? 

The answer to that last question may be relative. For example, a particular values statement may be true for engineers but have no meaning for salespeople. Or it could fit well in the office, yet seem irrelevant in the field. That’s why creating a values statement is so difficult. It’s challenging to reflect a truth that is shared throughout the organization, particularly one that crosses every classic organizing force used for any group of people in history, from geography to socioeconomics, religious ideology, race, gender, education, favorite sports team, and more.

But that’s also why it’s so important to do it well, because core values are not a corporate declaration, but rather a community standard. Leaders who fail to understand this create “core values” that provoke reactions ranging from open skepticism to inward indifference – far short of a culture of momentum, purpose, and professional kinship.

In any community, values are extracted, lived, and felt – not scripted. They come from what is shared and often unwritten; they create identity and belonging; and, together, they act as a compass. While they may also be aspirational, they don’t start from a list of sanitized terms or hipster buzzwords.

That is why the best core values statements have their origins in storytelling. More about that in a moment.

Values create a community where we agree about what matters

The push to create values statements grows out of the radical shift in how and with whom we interact each day. Until the 20th Century and the popularization of the automobile, the community of people that we lived with was the same community that we worked with. Therefore, company culture didn’t need to be defined because there was little disconnect between the values baked into the local community and those of the organization.

The lesson from those times is that community and culture are built around what we have in common, and it’s what we have in common that drives our core values.

By comparison, today we enter a workforce of fragmented identities. People are often nominated for employment by an impersonal algorithm. They express themselves in Facebook posts and group chats, and they live in virtual camps or office locations that are hundreds or thousands of miles from their birthplaces. When a group of new hires walks into your company, they may have nothing substantive in common beyond, say, the ability to sell, or enter data, or write code.

The essence of an effective core values statement

If core values are intended to be a reflection of, and filter for, a community, where do you start when there’s no obvious alignment? If we are essentially strangers to each other, values statements painted on the wall won’t drive much of anything.

This is why a company’s core values should serve as a cultural adhesive wherever the goal is to engage the talents, interests, and backgrounds of those in the organization for maximum productivity and, yes, for good.

Like glue, a values statement must celebrate the diversity of those it brings into the company and give all of them clear points of connection that allow them to bond.

Core values killers

Many core values lose meaning today because they spring from a base of conflict and confusion. Here are a few of the ways values lose their sense of True North:

·        Commoditization: The corporation views its employees as commodities, not as a community.  When only data and dollars matter, authenticity and community dwindle, leaving employees to feel like replaceable cogs in a machine. There’s no sticky human reason to stay or give one’s all.

·        Singularity: The corporation insists it’s one-of-a-kind and crafts a values statement unlike any other. But as values are attached to what is common among us, bypassing the central beliefs and values of the community will not drive a company to singular achievement.

·        Uniformity: The corporation promotes MBA-buzzword values as it strives to please everyone. The result is a set of bland values statements that mean little and reflect no genuine interest in the community on the company payroll, or the organization’s potential generational impact.

·        Resistance: The corporation clings to an old statement it’s unwilling or afraid to change. It’s not a mark of distinction or heritage to let your values get trapped in the cobwebs of the past when the people and customers that make up your present and future are living by a different sense of work and community today.

Back to storytelling

How do we overcome these conflicts to center on core values with actual meaning?

The path to success is to focus first on the stories your people and your customers tell about your company and share with one another. What is celebrated, what draws attention, what does “everyone” care about? What tales are modern legends in your company? Where does your organization find its pride, or its shame? Its hope, or its despair? Its honor and its humanity?

When you draw your company’s values from the shared core that is revealed in these stories, the value statements that result will ring true and take on momentum of their own. An excellent example of this comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose first core value is optimism, drawn from the many stories of those who want to change the world in the face of enormous obstacles. It’s an organization where everyone shares and believes in optimism and has the stories to prove it, so it’s a perfect distillation of a core value that runs organization-wide.

Contrast this with organizations that pour vast resources into engagement activities to create an artificial sort of community. While well-intended, these programs can also backfire because they are only applied topically, rather than having been drawn from the true character of the organization. For example, a front-line worker at a Fortune 500 retailer says, “Our employee engagement programs are built around a core value of ‘fun,’ so our inboxes are flooded with emails such as ‘Today is talk-like-a-pirate day,’ or ‘It’s national cheese joke week.’ As an adult, I find this pointless and irritating.”  

Earlier this year, the same company accepted a contract that was so controversial it spurred hundreds of its headquarters employees to walk out for a day. It was a clash of core values that divided the community within the company. As our insider quips, “There’s no cheese joke for that.”

The point is that inauthentic culture will do nothing to prevent fissures from opening into crevasses or even canyons. That’s because artifice doesn’t have the tensile strength to contain real conflict or the lens to help the community of workers to put controversy into perspective and make decisions based on values that are shared and can be sustained.

Indeed, values can (and should) force hard decisions. Last year, several large hotel conglomerates found themselves caught between their values statements and their profit margins. Though their core values range from “putting people first” to “family” and “caring,” hotel workers called for wage increases, year-round health care, and resolutions to prevalent safety concerns. Even in a year of record earnings, the companies took the traditional position and resisted. But after months of campaigns in which workers complained about insufficient living wages, inconsistent health coverage during slow winter months, and inadequate security precautions for staff, public sentiment – and the public’s values — became a critical player in the dynamics.

In the end, the corporations provided restitution, but not before spending months on a core values battleground where their divisions were deepened, and their values statements were tested. The lesson from these times is that if our core values don’t serve as a guide to help us make the hard decisions in times of controversy, then they aren’t our authentic core values.

Values are an investment, not a platitude

Values are priceless, but they are not free. Backing up your core values statements has financial implications, but they are worth it. At the Gates Foundation, optimism means investing in important projects even when the chances of success look bleak, which is why they’ve dedicated billions of dollars to the fight against malaria. But that doesn’t mean money alone creates a compelling community of values. For instance, at the large retailer that wants its employees to bond over fun, cheesy jokes didn’t offset the ultimate cost of making a highly controversial sale. And in the example of the hotel conglomerates, all of those companies paid twice — once to deepen the divide over values like putting people first, family, and caring, and once to support them.

No situation is perfect, and I could cite examples from many companies to illustrate that — but the point is to move toward that higher plane where a company’s core values have actual value to the people it hopes to hire, retain, and form into a community that can withstand the challenges of distracted, divisive, and mercurial times. It takes hard work because there is no magical shortcut to establishing them for any one enterprise.

What works

By order of magnitude, truth and the ability to focus on what matters to the community outshine any other elements of core values by a factor of ten. That truth and focus create a North Star by which to navigate; they ring with an authenticity that directs and nourishes every role in a company and every relationship it fosters, internally or externally.

What all employees have in common is, of course, painfully obvious: the business in which they’re engaged, and what drew them into that business. It’s the work of the organization around which community is formed, stories are told, and inspiration is found. And in those telling moments, common values are revealed.

Those communal values can unify the C-level and the reception pool, the IT team and the sales force, the marketing department and the factory floor.

When values are centered on that relevant commonality, the concordance and fidelity they foster can minimize friction and heal injuries that would otherwise lead to more severe division. When a company of people can agree on what the business is, what it stands for, and why – in human terms – then the decisions made anywhere within the organization can reflect and reinforce those shared values.

Circling Back

At the beginning of this article, I answered unequivocally “Yes” to the question of whether a company’s values really matter. And while I still hold to my answer today, I do so with the caveat of the following four cornerstones, which help organizations anchor the formation of their core values statements.

·        The power of storytelling. The tales told by those within your company become parables for the organization and sink into the fabric of your culture. Distill the shared values they represent and incorporate them into how you define your what’s important to the company. When you look at your final core values statements, can you support each with the stories your community already tells about them today? If so, you’ve nailed it.

·        Distinctly us, but not only us. Your company is not the only one that believes, for example, that customers come first, or that fast is better than slow. But if a particular value defines your community at its core – i.e., it distinguishes what invigorates your community at an essential level – make those points part of your core values, even if other companies value them, too.

·        Communal, not corporate. Nothing in your values should aid or abet the commoditization of your community. Instead, use core values as the foundation of aspiration, growth, respect, accomplishment, and development of the community by distilling what emanates from its own passionate center – what makes the heartbeat and character of the organization. Your core values should be as distinct as your community is.

·        Reflection before reinforcement. Core values do create behavior patterns we want to see, but first they must reflect who we already are at our best. Only then can they reinforce what we want to be, because to grow and develop, those aspirational values need to be rooted in who and what we are in reality as a community. 

The bottom line

Core values have weight, especially when they’re truthful and focused on what matters to the community within the organization. If they’re hollow, corrupted, misguided, or pretentious, they carry with them a falsehood that can trap and divide an organization. But if they are drawn from and representative of the community they serve, they can have the strength of steel. Like any principle or strategy, core values are difficult to forge and take time to develop and cure; but once they’re well-formed, they sustain you through everything else.


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I speak worldwide about our distracted lives, and authored the Amazon bestseller Can I Have Your Attention? Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getti...