Core Values Are Stupid Until They’re Not

Core Values Are Stupid Until They're Not

This article was originally published on Inc. Masters on February 8, 2021.

Several years ago, my leadership team encouraged me to endorse the creation of “core values” for our organization, Ignite Social Media. At the time, we had been functioning well and growing regularly, and my prior experience with crafting such statements was not positive. I think I visibly rolled my eyes.

Can you relate? Have you been in those groupthink exercises where a well-intentioned committee of some sort throws out grand words and tries to massage them into sentences that include each person’s most important adjectives?

Ultimately the committee’s work is then carried to the masses, like a freshly printed thesis, and presented with sufficient gravity as the new governing standards. Months later, few can recall more than a smattering of the words on that sacrosanct document. It’s framed and hung on a few walls where it fairly quickly blends into the background.

When core values become core, however, is when the company repeatedly takes actions based on them. The turning point for me was when that same leadership team came to me about an employee who was causing disruptions. While talented and often likable, this employee had repeated bouts of anger and lashing out at colleagues.

I remember when one leader challenged me, saying, “You agreed that ‘respect’ is one of our core values. Is that true or not? If it’s true, what does it mean that you let this continue?” It was clear then that this employee needed to be dismissed, so I did so.

Another of our core values is “client success,” which is based on the belief that our social media agency will be successful if we ply our craft to make our clients successful. While that’s a nice sentiment, it also means that we’ve had to fire more than one client for whom we didn’t believe success was achievable. We’ve also repeatedly and steadily turned down new clients who were not set up for success.

Values become core when your company makes difficult decisions, including those with financial ramifications, and you are guided by them. Until then, they are nothing more than platitudes.

6 Quick Tips for Bringing Core Values to Life

To avoid the “filed and forgotten” fate of many core values, our experience as a team taught me these six important lessons.

  1. Focus on true values over word choices. While descriptor text explaining the importance of each core value can be changed over time as needed, real values should be immutable.
  2. Only choose values you can back. You will no doubt think of more values than you can reasonably support. Choose only those you are willing to go to bat for, repeatedly, as a company.
  3. Execute a rollout plan. Our team created a fun video explaining each core value. Both the act of making each video and the sharing of them helped people internalize them.
  4. Put them everywhere. We made mousepads, stickers, and more, and we distributed them over time to the team. People can’t act on core values they’ve forgotten. We’ve given monthly Core Value Awards for years now.
  5. Reframe management challenges in the context of values . By remembering to ask which core values should govern a particularly difficult decision, the right answer materializes much more quickly.
  6. Teach your staff to think in context of values. By asking your team the same question about how a given problem looks in context of your core values, you begin to provide the entire company with a problem-solving framework.

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Progress Over Perfection

While our core values are a much more important force in our organization than I ever expected, we’re not perfect. Our very largest client a few years ago didn’t live up to “respect” as much as we’d have liked. But an abrupt firing of that client would have cost several jobs on our team.

At a minimum, at least we were aware of the issues and worked as a management team to abate them as best as we could. That was not a perfect solution for anyone, really. But framing that challenge in the context of a threat to our core values and what we stand for still somehow helped.

Whatever stage you’re in right now, using your core values as a lens by which you make management decisions is the best way to ensure you stay true to what you believe most, at your core. 

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