Stop Wasting Your Time Defining Core Values

Recently, a colleague reached out to me for advice. He was preparing to lead his executive team through an exercise to clarify their core values. He was a bit shocked when I replied that I would be glad to help but identifying your corporate values is typically a waste of time.

Now don’t get me wrong, values matter. In the purest sense, our core values define the beliefs and principles that guide our actions. My issue with the practice of defining values is not with the concept but with the execution. I typically encounter two main traps that teams fall into:

  • When identifying their values they do not distinguish between those that are aspirational versus those that they are committed to.
  • They do not translate their committed values into day-to-day behaviors/actions.

Aspirational vs. Committed

The process typically begins by brainstorming from a long list of potential values. How do you choose; they all sound so good? And if you don’t choose a value, doesn’t that mean it’s not important to you? When pressed, we may narrow the list to our top 10-12 values.

The challenge, of course, is that having a list of 10-12 is only marginally more useful than not having a list. Instead, select your top 3. These are the 3 values that you are willing to commit yourself, your team, and the organization to living on a day-to-day basis. You are not aspiring to these, you are committed.

Translating Values Into Action

Identifying your top values can be an invigorating, frustrating, and time-consuming process. Often by the time you get to your core few, everyone is ready to just move on to something else that feels more productive. This is the point where it is critical to keep pushing until you have translated the values into a form that guides action on a day-to-day basis.

For example, if one of your top 3 values is innovation, create a short paragraph that describes what innovation means in the context of your team/organization. Next, identify examples where this value is currently being displayed within your organization. This provides tangible examples that others can identify with.

Now for the really important point, identify situations where the team or organization is acting in ways that are inconsistent with this value. A recent example includes an executive team that identified innovation as a top value.

When they got to this step, they realized that in one instance they were dictating the parameters of innovation to such a degree that, by default, they were dictating the innovations. This realization had such an impact on the team that they decided to adopt the practice of asking the following questions during their monthly review meetings:

  • How are we demonstrating our value of _______________?
  • How are we behaving in a way that is inconsistent with our value of _______________?

This reflective exercise helps the team continually refine and deepen their collective understanding of their values. The practice also ensures ongoing alignment and mindfulness of practices and policies that are inconsistent with their values.

So what about your situation? How does your team or organization bring your values to life?