What exactly are Core Values, and why should you care about them?

Episode 054

Nov 22, 2023

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"Take a look at this list of corporate values: Communication, Respect, Integrity, Excellence.
They sound pretty good, don't they? Maybe they even resemble your own company values.
If so, you should be nervous. These are the corporate values of Enron, as claimed in its 2000 annual report, and they're absolutely meaningless."

This was taken as a summary from the HBR (Harvard Business Review) article:
'Make your Values Mean Something' by Patrick M. Lencioni 
[link in the resource section below].

Let's talk about Core Values

It's a conversation that's often overlooked but holds great importance. You encounter values everywhere, but do you truly understand their significance?

So, what exactly are values, and why should you care about them?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, values are the guiding principles that help you determine right and wrong and how to navigate various situations. Values go beyond mere inspiration; they are meant to drive you into action. They shouldn't be relegated to words displayed on a wall or a website, hoping someone might notice.

Consider this scenario: When potential customers or suppliers come across your values, they might think, "These align with ours. We share three out of five values and suggests a strong foundation for collaboration."

Many of you will be thinking, 'Hmm, probably not'.

Here's our question: If you know a company that genuinely lives by its values, we encourage you to share that with us. We've set up a space on each podcast episode where you can share your thoughts and information.

We firmly believe that core values are not just words but a call to action.

They serve as our guiding principles, shaping our actions and decisions, acting as a unifying flag, and rallying us all towards common goals.

It is especially crucial in today's landscape, where values and alignment matter significantly, particularly to millennials and others. They seek alignment with their values, not the other way around.

So, when crafting your core values, keep this in mind.

It's about aligning with clients and service providers who share your values and ethos. It's not just about them coming to you; it's about how you show up for them, potentially shaping the future we all desire.

Core values deserve careful consideration.

We often emphasise this in our alignment workshops. When organisations express the need to change their safety culture, we always start with a critical question:

  • What does the senior leadership team think?

Have they engaged in a conversation about alignment and what this transformation should look like?

Defining the values that will underpin this change is a crucial step, and we're here to facilitate that conversation – it's a fabulous first step.

On that note, it's often a conversation where we have to look at the difference between a value and an aspiration.

Another quote from the HBR article says,

'I once asked the CEO of a Fortune 500 networking company to tell me one of his firm's core values. A sense of urgency,' he replied without hesitation. So, I asked, 'Do your employees take quick action and hit all their deadlines?' 'No,' he replied, 'they're complacent as hell, which is why we need to make urgency one of our core values.'

That response reveals a confusion underlying many values initiatives.

Far from being a core value, a sense of urgency didn't even exist in the organisation.
It was just an aspiration, a goal for the future.

Too often, executives mistake other kinds of values for core values, and the resulting chaos bewilders employees and makes management seem out of touch.

That hits home so hard because how often is it that companies have an aspiration of what they want to achieve, yet the reality isn't even a glimmer in what is going on in the organisation?

It causes so many clashes throughout the process.

When you consider guiding actions around attracting the right people, you're advertising - here are our values: come and work with us, be our client, be our service provider, and then wonder why the relationship fails because you're making a promise you cannot deliver on.

You've probably encountered numerous instances of this, and it's a common scenario.

You often come across words like "respect" or "integrity" as key components of company core values. However, pausing and questioning what these words truly represent is essential.

  • Are they genuinely being put into practice?
  • Is respect being extended to everyone?
  • Are they responding promptly to suppliers and clients?
  • Are they consistently demonstrating integrity in their actions, both internally and externally?

It's not just about superficially displaying these core values; it's about embodying them in your actions. This situation brings to mind the saying: 'Your actions are speaking so loud, I cannot hear what you are saying.'

It's a brilliant reminder that actions speak louder than words.

Conversely, companies with strong values that translate into action are more successful. Their actions convey a clear message that aligns with their values.

Now, consider what it means for you when you engage with such a company, whether as an employee, client, provider or simply someone interacting with the organisation. It makes a difference, doesn't it?

In our case, it can mean the distinction between the type of client we aspire to work with and the ones we'd rather not. Sometimes, you face the challenge of making that determination, and it's not always straightforward.

In essence, our values serve as a guiding compass.

They establish a firm foundation, a sense of direction, and even a feeling of security. They help everyone within the organisation understand its identity, purpose, and what it stands for.

We want to highlight a significant aspect of strong values and believe this will resonate with many.

When you collaborate with teams or companies that genuinely embody strong values, you gain a deep sense of trust. You know that you can confidently deliver on your promises.

This aligns with the sense of security we mentioned earlier because, when facing clients, you're assured that everything happening behind the scenes supports your commitments.

This starkly contrasts with making promises to clients and secretly worrying back at the office, hoping your organisation can fulfil them.

It's that uneasy feeling of having made a sale sound amazing, yet fearing that your personal values might be compromised, the job won't be done, and your company could falter because clients never know which version of your organisation they'll encounter.

Consistency is a keyword here, a strong pillar that underpins our actions.

Interestingly, there are notable core values from companies outside our industry that are worth exploring.

Some of these core values might raise eyebrows

But they make sense in their own context.

Take Zappos, an American company that's quite successful in the online retail industry.

They've got a core value that goes beyond words, emphasising what's behind the words: 'Deliver wow through service.' It's a captivating notion. Another one we find appealing from Zappos is: 'Be Humble.' And they've got a fun twist with: 'Create fun and a little weirdness.'

Facebook's values include: 'focus on impact,' 'move fast,' 'be bold,' 'be open,' and 'build social value.' It's a mix of ambition and social responsibility.

One of Google's mantras is: 'focus on the user and all else will follow.' However, we feel that could be open to interpretation in today's AI-driven world.

Airbnb brings in some fun with values like 'be a cereal entrepreneur,' a playful reference to breakfast cereal, which reflects their unique approach.

Patagonia, a company known for its commitment to values, emphasises 'Quality. Build the the best product,' 'Environmentalism. Protect our home planet,' and 'not bound by convention.'

Recognising that core values can be more than the typical five words we often encounter is essential. They lay the foundation for company culture, whether it's organisational or safety culture, and play a crucial role in shaping the identity and direction of the organisation.

The Core Values Canvas

Let's look at the Core Values Canvas activity introduced by the Fearless Culture Organisation, a four-step process that can be a valuable tool for your teams or individuals.

This canvas explores what inflates or deflates your core values, adding a unique dimension to how we perceive them.

Sometimes, we might express certain values, but employees might look at the company's core values and think, 'This doesn't resonate with me,' or 'It's out of touch with what's happening here.'
In such cases, it's like a deflation of those values.

On the other hand, values that align well with individuals can inflate them, creating a positive atmosphere.

The four-step process uses the visual of a balloon [see image below]

E054_Core Values Canvas by Gustavo Razzetti - Image

It's intriguing because it taps into our emotional and physiological responses.

  • When values are aligned, you stand tall, your lungs fill with air, and there's openness in expressing who you are.
  • Conversely, when values don't align, you might feel your shoulders slumping forward, your head drooping, your gut-wrenching, and your breath deflating in disappointment.

So, it's not just a visual exercise; it's a physiological reaction to alignment or misalignment.

As a practical exercise, you can examine your company's core values and identify which ones make you feel good and which ones don't. It's a simple yet insightful activity that can lead to interesting revelations.

When executing core values, it's essential to go beyond surface-level adoption.

Many companies copy generic values they find online, but true development involves a deep dive into what your team genuinely believes in.

It's about turning these beliefs into tangible actions and understanding how they manifest in people's behaviour, thoughts, and feelings.

In smaller organisations, achieving alignment with core values can be straightforward. However, as your company grows or acquires other businesses, integrating diverse sets of values becomes challenging.

This complexity is often compounded by ego clashes and office politics, where personal opinions can overshadow the company's values and disrupt decision-making.

Core values are not just words on a wall or a website; they are a guide for action.

They should influence every aspect of your organisation, from how you interact with clients to how you handle internal decisions.

In those moments, you may find that although company values sound good on paper, they can be challenging to live by or may clash with the organisation's unwritten rules.

For instance, a value like "sense of urgency" may be promoted, but in reality, not everyone follows it, leading to a disconnect between the stated values and actual behaviour. Over time, values can dilute, and trust can erode when not consistently applied in decision-making.

This isn't a one-time task; it's an ongoing process. Companies, like individuals, change and evolve, and so should their values. What makes sense today may not tomorrow.

It's important to reflect on personal experiences of value challenges or clashes internally and externally and recognise that core values are deeply intrinsic and not easily changed.

Implementing values can be particularly challenging in larger organisations, but leadership commitment and consistent communication can make a significant difference in aligning the organisation with its values.

For example, a regular newsletter from the CEO focusing on core values can reinforce their importance and impact throughout the company.

Creating a common understanding of core values is crucial because, without it, people may interpret these values differently based on their individual experiences and perspectives. Achieving this might require a thorough discussion and clarification of what each value means in practice.

  • In addition to understanding, it's essential to consider the success factors associated with these values. They play a significant role in how organisations and individuals make decisions.
  • When you encounter a situation that triggers discomfort or a "gut feeling," it's important to pay attention and question why it's causing discomfort.
  • Trusting your instincts and exploring how a situation aligns, or conflicts with your intrinsic and extrinsic values can lead to valuable insights.

Take the example of health as a core value.

While many may claim it as a value, the behaviours and actions associated with it can vary widely. Some individuals might profess the importance of health but not demonstrate it through their lifestyle choices.

It's crucial to distinguish between true core values and those merely claimed but not lived. Values are not just words; they require consistent action to hold meaning and significance in an individual's or organisation's identity.

How did we come to our values?

Our own core values emerged naturally during one of our conversations.

We didn't turn to Google or A.I. for guidance; it was a genuine exchange of ideas about how we want to operate as a team, interact with clients, and engage with service providers.

These values also reflect who we are as individuals, making them deeply meaningful to us.

1. Openness ~ Open-mindedness
We embrace open-mindedness, actively listen, and value fresh ideas. It's about continuous learning and growing together, fostering a culture where diverse perspectives are welcome.

2. Transparency ~ Holding Up the Mirror, Sharing Vulnerability
We hold up the mirror and share vulnerability. Transparency means being honest, real and celebrating successes while acknowledging our mistakes. We understand that it's okay not to be perfect because we're all human.

3. Candour ~ Frankness, Honesty, and Sincerity in Communication
Candour is about frankness, honesty, and sincerity in communication. It involves having tough conversations with respect and ensuring that everyone feels heard and valued.

4. Challenge ~ Identifying New and Better Ways of Doing Things
We constantly challenge ourselves to find new and better ways in our personal and business lives. Curiosity drives us to question the status quo, seek improvement, and adapt to changing circumstances.

5. Trust ~ The Glue That Allows Us to Do Anything
Trust is the glue that binds us together. It enables us to speak freely, take risks, and support each other. Trust is the foundation on which our team and business thrive, allowing us to achieve anything.

These values are more than just words to us;
they guide our actions and decisions as we work towards our goals together.

Final Thoughts

Reflecting on our values is essential to ensure they continue to guide us.

When faced with challenges or feeling pushed into a corner, our values provide a solid foundation to stand our ground and uphold our beliefs.

It might mean slower growth at times, but that's okay because we prioritise delivering on our promises in the way we promised.

Key Takeaways for Core Values

Dig Deep
Make your values your own; don't simply copy and paste.
Ask yourself why they matter and what they mean to you.

Core values should drive actions, not just be good intentions or aspirations.
Values require real-life application, not just words.

Clarity and Commitment
Be clear about your values and why they are crucial.
Live by them, lead by example, prioritise them over profit, and never compromise.

Solid Foundation
Upholding your values leads to a solid foundation, ensuring trust and meaningful growth.

We're here to help you have meaningful conversations about building, aligning, and executing your values for more effective and safer working environments.

Feel free to reach out to us below


Harvard Business Review Article

The Fearless Culture Activity

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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