What’s the big deal about core values?

backdrop of ripe pineapple halves with sweet flesh

Every so often there is a new buzzword or two, which begin to circulate in their intended form, but soon end up being overused, open to interpretation and being subjected to eye-rolls.

The concept of ‘core values’ has been on such a journey in some ways, with all manner of organisations and businesses citing their 3,5 or 7 core values on their websites, in their recruitment drives and within their policies. The idea is that the entire workplace lives by and embodies these values. But to what extent is this true?

Well, at their best, agreed and shared core values can really positively shape a place. To achieve this, all stakeholders will have been consulted on which values they think embody their workplace, which values they feel they should aspire to and with clear reasons ‘Why’. Why do we value integrity? What happens if we aren’t kind to those we work with? What is the benefit in striving for excellence?

Once the core values have been contributed to, agreed and are thoroughly understood by all, for them to survive in the long term, leaders must ensure the following:

  • That they model each value themselves: if it’s honesty- are they honest?
  • That the conversation around agreed values is reflective and ongoing: ‘How did we demonstrate being solution-focused this month?’
  • That embodiment of the shared core values is noticed, praised and celebrated;
  • That any new staff joining are introduced to the shared core values at a deeper level;
  • That behaviour which strongly deviates from agreed values is systematically challenged and that people are supported to overcome any challenges that they may be facing;
  • That they use core values to help with decision making and action planning processes;

We could go on… but you get the point. At their best, core values can really be the glue between people and processes in the workplace.

At their worst, core values are a chore and a joke. They are some words that no-one really sticks to, least of all leaders. Staff know that the supposed values are there for some nice PR and to attract people to come and work there. Leaders don’t demonstrate them and they don’t challenge others who abide by their own rules, in contrast to the named values. Needless to say, these types of environments are fairly toxic, because people are not doing what they state they are supposed to do- therefore, fairness, integrity and trust are in question straight away. This builds resentment and encourages separation into factions.

So what of personal core values? They are much less talked about. Have you ever taken the time to identify yours?

I came to reflect on this about 7 years ago, as part of a leadership course that I was on. They spoke about core values and asked us to identify our own and write them down. They gave us 15 minutes. Sounds easy…yet, I spent my 15 minutes looking to the left and right, contemplating that the colleagues in the room all seem to have a good idea about what their core values were. I had no idea. At all. I had never thought about this concept because up to this point, my focus had been purely on my family and what I wanted for them.

So I went home and thought long and hard about about what I value most. I turned to the internet and searched up a long list of values, then I used a process of elimination to narrow mine down. Over the next few days and weeks, I kept re-evaluating and they kept slightly changing. Until there were about 3 or so that kept recurring over and over. They became my core values.

So what? At this point, nothing significant happened. The Earth didn’t move and nobody even knew that I had some values defined for myself. A bit underwhelming to say the least. But it wasn’t until I started in my new leadership position that the magic of my core values started to take effect. I realised their use and their invisible power when I considered them during the toughest, stickiest and most challenging situations I had encountered. In considering how to deal with such tricky situations, which decisions to make and the multitude of outcomes that each decision could carry with it, I resorted to upholding my values: to try to hear and understand others so that I could best interact with them, to act with integrity so that people can build their trust in my decision making, and to focus on solutions rather than problems- because the idea of possibilities carries hope and motivation.

This did not mean that every decision I made pleased others, or that I was happy with every outcome. But when all was said and done, I knew that I acted not through malice or vindication, but through good will and positive intentions, sometimes for the greater good. I don’t claim to be a saint or a know-it-all, but I really just wanted to share my experience of identifying my own values and the difference this made my both my professional and personal life.

They are mighty little things: At their best, they can really provide stability at uncertain times. At their worst, they can create hypocrisy and mistrust. As with many things, it all depends on the choices of the person wielding them.

Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

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