What Exactly Is A Core Value?
April 26, 2016

What Exactly Is A Core Value?


When I started SmallBox in 2006 I didn’t give much thought to what our “values” were. They seemed irrelevant. I was much more focused on what we were selling and who we were selling it to. I didn’t even really know what a “value” was. It seemed to be a bunch of words well-intentioned leaders put on posters around an office – overused words like “Integrity” or “Honesty.” None of it resonated with me.

But as the company grew I began to sense something was missing. I would get frustrated by an employee’s behavior and not really know how to address it. Was it a pet peeve of mine when someone worked differently from me or was it something deeper? Why did I “click” with some clients and not others? Through experience and learning I began to understand what values were and why they mattered.

They are how you, the company, act. You can say you have the value of collaboration but if you don’t actually partner and work with others consistently, then you don’t have that value. I’ve also found that the most reliable way to find your company’s core values is to explore your history and the actions of your people. In our work with clients we often mine organizational stories to find the behaviors (aka values) that have driven success in the past. Also, we seek to understand what values were being dishonored when you went astray.

But what about behaviors you don’t consistently exhibit but want to? Should you make them a core value and hope for the best? What about the basic stuff like honesty and integrity? Or community? Aren’t these all values every company should have? Yes and no.

Patrick Lencioni, an organizational health consultant and author, outlines four types of values in his book “The Advantage” (which I HIGHLY recommend). I agree with his thinking and want to share our take on it here to clear up confusion we often run into with our clients.

Four Types of Values

Permission To Play
These are values that every organization needs in order to be in business – the basics I mentioned before like honesty, integrity, respect, etc. Of course, not all companies even honor these permission to play values but those deceptive businesses, assuming they have any real competition at all, usually get pushed out of business quickly.

These are values that might be specific to your industry, culture, or region. They are good to acknowledge but they are not core to driving your success. For instance, humor is an accidental value to SmallBox. We certainly value humor but it isn’t really a behavior that we hold other’s accountable to. We don’t say, “You’re not being funny!” It’s just a byproduct of who we are that we like to laugh and have fun.

These are central to how the business operates, the behaviors that you consistently exhibit and hold yourselves accountable to. Lencioni adds: “They are the source of a company’s distinctiveness and must be maintained at all costs.” An example of a core value we often see in our work is “collaboration,” as in “we work together to solve problems.”

These are values that you wish to have but not do currently consistently exhibit. To some extent, every core value is a little aspirational since no organization bats 1,000 on consistent behavior. At SmallBox we initially identified collaboration as an aspirational value until we felt it was a consistent behavior and could be considered core.

As you might guess, most businesses put their focus and energy on the “core” values. As Lencioni famously said, “If everything is important then nothing’s important.” Narrowing your focus to the three to five essential behaviors/values that drive your success is key to sustained health and growth. But we have found that understanding and identifying the other three types of values can sometimes create needed clarity in an organization that is struggling with identifying what is most important.

Can core values change? There is some debate about this but I believe they can. It’s good to revisit them every few years to see if a deeper understanding has emerged. For example, we modified our value of “creativity” to “curiosity” a couple years ago. We felt that what was driving our creativity was actually the behavior of curiosity.

Just remember that core values are tools, not commandments carved into stone.