Your Core Values Might Accidentally Stink


I don’t mean to be unkind, but sadly, it’s true in many cases. A lot of core values stink. Many well-intentioned folks–executives, managers, consultants, and so on–craft core values that end up being almost entirely meaningless if you accept that core values are supposed to be your organization’s DNA. Folks rightly understand that your values undergird your culture, and I think most know on at least some level (even if they don’t want to admit it) that an organization’s culture is a potentially huge–and often untapped–competitive advantage. However…

If you glance at many organizations’ lists of core values, you’ll find things that sound great at first blush. Things like honesty, integrity, respect–those things are all fine and good, but they really don’t speak to what makes your organization different from every other one in your market. I mean really, have you ever seen a financial institution not list those as their values? Yeah, me either. So unless of course you’re suggesting that your organization is more honest, has more integrity, and is more respectful than everyone else (which would be pretty arrogant, right?), you should be looking at your values differently. Think about it–most of us just generally assume that most organizations are honest, aim to conduct business with integrity, and are respectful of, well, whatever it is that organizations are respectful of. So for you to list those as your core, defining values is almost redundant and unnecessary. Those are attributes that we expect most businesses to have; they don’t really make you unique.

Keep thinking. What if we took your core values or your marketing pieces and put them on a piece of paper without colors, identifiable fonts, logos, or anything else. If people read them, would they know it was you? Would your employees even know it was you? Many times, the answer is no. And again–it’s not that those values themselves are bad; they’re just not unique. They’re not you.

What about these? Warrior’s Spirit. A Servant’s Heart. A Fun-LUVing Attitude. Those, of course, are from Southwest Airlines. Now underneath each of those values, there are specific behaviors outlined. By the time you’ve read through them, you have a pretty good idea of who they are and how they roll. Are you stoic and serious-minded? Then Southwest’s not for you, and that’s OK! Core values aren’t moral judgements; they simply speak to what defines the culture of that group of humans.

And please–don’t misread this and think I’m saying everyone needs to be like Southwest or any other organization. That’s not what I think, and I’ve said as much in previous posts. You need to be YOU, warts and all. We don’t need another Zappos. We don’t need another Apple. We don’t need another Five Guys. They’re all great organizations, and we can admire what they’ve done from a culture and branding perspective. But what makes them great is that they’re them. They’re unique and unflinching in regards to their culture and brand.

Your core values should give your employees a sort of behavioral compass, and should give the outside world an idea of who you really are as an organization. It’s essentially your brand. Great organizations find ways to really blur the line between internal organizational culture and external brand, and that’s how it should be. An organization’s brand ought to be simply one face of its culture. But frankly, that’s not possible with those almost default, expected values. You being honest and respectful is great; but it’s also not at all unique. We would all nod and say that those things are sort of standard operating procedures, sure. But they don’t really define your organization in a unique way to your employees or the broader public.

So dig deep. Figure out who you really are. And then be you.

18 thoughts on “Your Core Values Might Accidentally Stink

  • This year, PTP NEW MEDIA celebrates 10 years of awesome. But instead of throwing big bashes, we decided to take a hard look inside of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. This is exactly what we help credit unions with. We know how hard it can be to challenge one another and embrace the fear that comes with honest conversations. However, from these conversations we are in a much better position than we were in to continuing forward into the next 10 years of awesome.

    Below is a peak inside our hearts and heads…

    Mission: We are passionate people that exist to drive consumer action by creating an emotional reaction as we challenge one another to work together to share your brand story through strategic marketing.

    Vision: Be the national leader in providing credit unions progressive full service marketing solutions.

    Purpose: Destroy the box, have fun & enjoy the epic journey of growth both personally as well as professionally.

    What We Believe:
    1. Deliver Happiness & Do the Right Thing
    2. People Over Profit
    3. Respect Builds Trust and Grows Love
    4. Embrace Change Through Growth & Learning
    5. Do What You Love & Love What You Do
    6. Give Back & Make The World A Better Place
    7. Negativity Does Not Promote Productivity
    8. Awards Are Nice, Results Are better, We Work For Both
    9. Be Humbly Proud Of All You Do
    10. Celebrate Wins & Blow The Horn

      • Humbly thank you for the kind words Philip. We believe these 10 values are something that give everyone at PTP ownership of. It truly is more than just about one person working alone, but all of us working together to achieve a common goal or purpose. The idea of “destroy the box, have fun and enjoy the epic journey of growth both personally as well as professionally” means that life is more than just about work. It’s about growing together and being better people while having fun along the way. Yes… it can happen. 🙂

    • And that, my friend, is a small glimpse into why I’m a big PTP fan. In some senses, though, it actually lends credence to the broader point, because perhaps part of the reason I dig what you guys do is that your values and mine jive well. Rock on.

  • Great post! Thank you for writing such straight talk. Far too often an organization’s written values are nebulous and out of touch with the real organizational culture. Written values should give a potential employee a peak inside what it would be like to work for you.

    The challenge sometimes, especially in large-scale global corporations, is ensuring those values are inculcated into the work culture. I loved the values provided in the comment left by JRL, although some of these values may be easier to weave into the culture than others. For example, giving back can become part of the organization’s culture when you involve employees in a volunteer program such as a food drive. Other values, such as “negativity does not promote productivity”, while true, are more of a statement. How is negativity in the workplace (which inevitably creeps up from time to time) squashed? It’s certainly possible to do so, but it takes effort.

    Favorite workplace value – Create a culture of “please” and “thank you”. Thank someone every day, for the effort if not the results.

    • Thanks for the kind words P Gallerno. Great point about some of the values listed for PTP are easier than others. The idea is that all of these values provide the ability for everyone to take ownership of regardless of how they help here. Giving back is huge for us as we believe we should help others as others have helped us. It’s what makes the world go round and makes it a better place. This might be volunteering time in local community or doing a pro bono project. In regards to “negativity does not promote productivity”, this IS a bit tougher but is a core value as overtime, negativity can kill an organization. By making it a core value, we are always mindful of negativity as it creeps in. Sometimes this may be created internally or driven externally from difficult clients. Regardless, this is built upon by a secondary statement that would fall under this: Bitch. Moan. Move on. The idea here is that we can bitch and complain vocally to get what ever is bothering us off our chest. Maybe someone can help with a different view point. This is much better than harboring these negative feelings inside. That’s poison. The last part is key though: Move on. Once you bitched and moan. Keep moving forward to be better. Making this a core value keeps this idea top of mind for us.

  • Matt,

    This is a real eye-opening and action-encouraging post. I realize that core values are the starting point of genuine personal and professional success, but your writing here really explains why. You can only be the best you and distinguishing what is unique about you at the core level is a brilliant way to go about it. I thought I had got this part established, but I clearly have some more important work to do on defining MY core values.


    • Thanks for the kind words, Philip! And really, you should be encouraged, because you’ve already taken a great step in that you understood that you need to wrestle through your values some more. Go for it!

  • Great Point! Aim to capture your companies heart and energy, while breathing those values through your customers. Let your customers experience you and your teams soul and not just read some mundain list in your lobby wall. Thanks Matt! How would you guys start to implement core values in you business? How would everyone respond?

    • Right. Too often there’s a disconnect between who an organization says they are, who they really are, and what their customers experience. Those gaps are only bridged by digging deep and having honest conversations around organizational identity and culture.

  • Agree with your post but would like to add, the core values are so contextual and are only evident when put to the test. So you can get marketing wizards to make your core values sound really cool and unique, but let’s look inside the organization and see if you operate really differently. What do all those mean? Without the boots on the ground execution of these sayings, they remain just cooler words.

    And anyway, who makes those core values? And what happens if you don’t fit? Does an awesome company dump you? Then they’re not so awesome if they do that. Get what I mean? It’s tricky.

    Besides, after having spent too many years doing this work, I wonder if any organization has the right to get access to my inner life. Maybe all I owe them is my professional best. Just thinking…..

    • I can only speak to what we are creating at PTP NEW MEDIA however the core values listed above were developed by the team. Not just by me as the company and what we are wanting to achieve is bigger than me.

      In regards to putting them to the test, this happens everyday as we continuously go back to check them against what we are doing, where we are going, how we are living, etc.

      Finally, to your question of what happens if someone does not fit. Do they get dumped? Well… honest but hard truth: yes

      I believe that time must be taken to train, listen and learn to how they can be helped first but if they are not in line with where the company wants to grow, why stick around.

      This is one reason I continue to ask those on our team if they are still loving what they are doing. Because if not… let’s find out why, see if we can fix it or see if we can find something for you better together. Life is too short to not do what you love and love what you do.

      I don’t think if an awesome company lets someone go because they don’t buy into their values is an even better company for doing that. IMHO this is what takes a company from good to great.

      Take for example Zappos, they build this into their hiring process where the pay people to quit after a week of training.

      Should an organization have the right to get access to your personal life? Maybe not.

      Should an organization get personal with you and give you the opportunity to personally immerse yourself beyond the minimum? Absolutely.

  • Good stuff, Matt. One comment: You wrote:

    “Many well-intentioned folks–executives, managers, consultants, and so on–craft core values that end up being almost entirely meaningless….”

    In my experience and observations, no firm “crafts” its core values. Instead, core values emerge over time as a result of processes, procedures, and (especially) the reward/incentives structure. An organization can help reinforce certain core values by what it celebrates, rewards, publicizes, promotes on, and hires for…. but I’d dispute that the values can be crafted as a sculptor with clay would do.

    Hiring consultants to do this can be tricky. Management needs to decide: Are we designing policies, procedures, etc. to better reflect our core values… or to change the ones we have?

    • Hey Ron! Hope you’ve been well.

      And you’re right. I debated addressing that very thing in the post, but for the sake of time and space I didn’t. Perhaps I should have. 🙂 I appreciate your questions/comments, and I really love the last paragraph of your post. That’s a question any organization thinking about working with a consultant should ask themselves.

      I think it’s important, as you pointed out, to understand that people mean different things sometimes when they use the word “values.” There are some values that are simply inherent to the organization. These are “core values” in the true sense of the phrase, and would be values that anyone–member, customer, and/or employee–that’s spent a decent amount of time with your organization would know are true of you, whether they’re formally written somewhere (like say in huge font on the side of a bank branch wall or employee break room) or not.

      Other values are what we might call accidental values. These are values that have developed over time, again, as you said, and may or may not be something you’d actually like to be true of your organization. But whether you like it or not, and whether it’s fair or not, certain experiences have led enough people to believe certain things about the organization.

      Others still are aspirational in nature. These are values that an organization wants to have, wishes it had, and believes it must have to be successful.

      There are also the baseline-of-human-behavior ones like honesty, integrity, and so on that I mentioned in the original post.

      Thanks for posting that–it’s a point of clarification that was needed.

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