Business people discussing at the Office

Many companies have core values – usually defined as “principles that guide an organisation’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with the external world.” They are usually summarized in the mission statement as the values underlie the work, interactions, and strategies employed to fulfil the mission.

It is paramount then, that core values are well understood, and interpreted in the same way by every last employee, not just the management team.

But are they?

Companies sometimes make the mistake of choosing core values, then trying to “install” them in their employees. This is sometimes referred to as the “top-down” way of creating core values.

The problem here is that in most companies, the view from management is often different from that of the employees.

By the time they reach the last employee, there is little or no ownership of one or more of the core values.

Let’s illustrate this by taking a common Core Value across different industries – Community.

Some may see this as any contribution made to the good of society. Others view this as needing to be aligned to what the company does. Yet others may require this to be measurable. If you’re in management, you may insist that service to community be termed as Corporate Social Responsibility and there must be a marketing of business angle tied to it. This often leads to wrong expectations being set which result in misunderstandings and misalignments.

If there are varied interpretations of one core value, imagine the confusion when most companies have four to five core values that are attempting to guide the interactions and strategies employed. Core values are often personally interpreted. As a result, they don’t become core to the individual, although they remain core to the organization.

So how can we make them core to each person?

I was reading this article on leadership guru Jim Collins’ website – he wrote, “you cannot “set” organizational values, you can only discover them… core values are not something people “buy in” to.”

He goes on to suggest concrete ways to identify core values through an activity called the “Mars Group Exercise” and questions you could ask individuals.

From my perspective, it is also useful to keep in mind that the individuals selected to be a part of this Mars Group should be chosen from as diverse a group as possible – not just in background, but in the way they prefer to think and behave. The aim is to achieve cognitive diversity.

Ultimately, we need to consider that individuals are different and we need them to be representative of a larger population.

A final suggestion – after Core Values have been chosen, consider how differently these values might be interpreted. If we respect the fact that people have different perspectives, it will be easier for people to finally align these Core Values to their own.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

– Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948), Indian Political and Spiritual Leader

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