Core Values are Back in Fashion

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

In an age when news headlines have been dominated by stories of fiscal mismanagement, unchecked greed, massive bankruptcies, and rampant downsizing, it’s almost impossible not to conclude that our nation’s decision makers have lost their way. However, despite the turmoil that’s recently rocked corporate America—or perhaps because of it—there’s a movement afoot in the corporate world to get back to the basics of good business. Leaders are seeing that consistently putting short-term results and performance measures over long-term adherence to corporate purpose and values just doesn’t work. What does work is identifying a set of values and making sure everyone lives by them—no matter what.

Organizations that are healthy and effective in the long term are organized around and guided by a set of core values. Here are five steps you can take to help point your own organization in a positive direction:

1. Ask your colleagues: “What do you want this company to look like?” The first step in building a core values compass is, of course, identifying what those values are. Don’t start by racking your brain for words that will sound nice on paper, though. Ask each of your fellow organizational leaders to describe their fundamental expectations for workplace behavior. Consider how members of the organization should operate on a daily basis, both in their outward behavior and in their internal decision making processes.

2. Consolidate the answers. Once each of your organization’s leaders has had time to think about it, come together and discuss each person’s list. Chances are you’ll have a significant amount of overlap. Examine the most common expectations and continue to narrow the list down. The goal is to determine which of the proposed values most closely reside at your organization’s ideological core. (That’s not to say that the values that don’t make the cut aren’t important). In general, the most effective lists contain three to five values.

3. Translate the values into specific behaviors. After a consensus has been reached as to what the core values are, describe each one more fully in terms of behaviors. Discuss what an outside observer would see happening at your organization if everyone’s actions and decisions were in line with its values. This will leave no room for misinterpretations or misunderstandings. For example, if “integrity” is one of your values, it might be manifested as not making false promises and as keeping those that are made as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

4. Decide where a “course change” may be in order. Creating a list of core values can be exciting and refreshing; however, translating them from paper to people can be significantly more challenging and uncomfortable. Your organization’s leaders need to consider which of its policies and common practices are inconsistent with the newly identified core values, and then determine what needs to be done to reconcile them. This step might not be popular. It may involve policy changes and process overhauls. It may also mean identifying individuals who will not or cannot uphold the values.

5. Settle in for the long haul. Core values aren’t transient—they’re solid and enduring. No matter how much your organization’s products or services change in the next 10 years and no matter who is at the helm, the values will remain the same. To ensure that the values are at the heart of all purposes, policies, and practices, assign a small group of people in the senior leadership team to be accountable for maintaining them.

Once your organization has an effective system of core values in place, decision making becomes simplified. Everything comes down to: “This either supports our values or it doesn’t.” The system cuts down on equivocation, excuses, and those “Yes, but…” rationalizations. If descriptions of Enron-like behaviors are too close for comfort, establishing—and sticking to—organizational values can be a game changer. Your people will know exactly what the acceptable paths are and, if they want to stick around, they’ll follow them.

Simply stated, putting values over profit, numbers, and results is worth it. Alignment and accountability can never be overrated, and they’ll see you through to the end.]

This article was adapted from The Core Values Compass: Moving from Cynicism to a Core Values Culture (Academy Leadership Publishing, 2010). All rights reserved. Used with permission of the author.