core values

The Real Problem with Core Values and Organizational Culture

One of the first thing leaders do when they finally turn their attention to culture is to develop a list of core values. And there is an obvious logic to this that you can trace back to the fundamental definition of culture. Some people will say culture is “how we do things around here.” There’s some truth to that, but that’s just the behavior side. It turns out the behavior is driven by something deeper: what is valued.

Core Values and Culture

For the record, here’s my definition of culture: Culture is the collection of words, thoughts, actions, and “stuff” that clarify and reinforce what is truly valued in an organization.

Behavior is driven and shaped by what is valued, and we make clear what is valued through an interesting combination of what we do, what we say, what we think, and even tangible “stuff” like dress codes, office design, etc. Given that, it seems logical as a first step to write up a list of core values, right? By naming what is valued, we get straight to the point.

Well, sort of. The problem with core values is that when we choose them, we are thinking about ideals, rather than reality. We choose the values that sound right to us, that align with our personal values. The result is sadly predictable: integrity, excellence, quality, innovation, collaboration, fun(!)…is any of this sounding familiar? If I can tell you what your values are, and I don’t even know you, then something’s not quite right here.

Core Values and Your Organization

core values

There’s nothing wrong with all those values, of course. They’re great. But organizations don’t need “great” values, they need to value the things that specifically drive their success. For example, culture cool kid Zappos, values authenticity as captured in one of their core values: “create fun and a little weirdness.”

Now, I’m a big fan of authenticity in the workplace, and I think we need more of it. But that’s not why they chose that value. They made a strategic move a long time ago to double down on customer service. They decided that in order to grow like they did, they needed to blow people away with customer service. And guess what. If you make everyone sound “corporate” and read a script, you’re not going to blow people away. But if you let people be their weird selves and have a little fun…that creates some buzz. They chose this value because it drove their success.

So yes, some really great companies have some really clear core values. But don’t fall into the trap of choosing ones that sound nice or match what you read in Good to Great (or fill in your favorite business book here). Create a culture that works in your unique environment and write up the values to match it. People may be attracted to nice-sounding values, but they will fall in love with an organization that truly knows what makes them successful.



Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

  • Gary Gruber

    Similar with many orgs mission statements, they are aspirational (being ambitious, desiring success) rather than inspirational (uplifting, motivating, bringing out the best).

  • A lot of companies choose vague abstracts that the staff can interpret in anyway. Creating values that are simple and can be understood / scaled in all aspects of the business, is the way to go.

  • Snyder

    Never compromise integretiy and personal morals for $$$
    $$$ for Prophet will guarantee eventual organizational AND INDIVUDUAL FAILURE – eventually!

  • The label (e.g., integrity, authenticity, etc.) is meaningless without the behaviors that describe it uniquely for your organization, whether that comes from observing model leaders or setting aspirational descriptions. But then the key is to hold leaders accountable for acting in ways consistent with those aspirations.

  • Michelle Cubas, CPCC

    Owning values is nothing more than a code of behavior. For Zappos, they wanted to be “weird”, which translated into authenticity for them. Behavior is key because we cannot assume everyone comes in on a level playing field with manners or a service outlook. Values aren’t what sound good; they are the glue that binds an organization. It affects the company metrics and training. When working with clients, I always ask what behavior is rewarded in the company—very telling. I created the B.L.I.S.S. model to share with companies, and I can assure you it has nothing to do with sounding scripted. -MC

  • sheldog

    Companies don’t have values. People have values. If the true values of the people who work for the company are congruent with the true value proposition (not fictionalized) of the company (what customers want, need, and expect) there can be sustained success; or the opposite.

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