Three Ways To Know If Those “Core Values” of Yours Are Really Your Core Values

If you’re like most people, you will assure me that you (or your company) live and work – all day and every day – based on your core values. In fact, you’re likely to tell me that doing so is is the very foundation of your and your organization’s culture of ethics, compliance, and accountability. Based on my experience, though, I’m calling B.S. and here’s why…

I spend a great deal of time talking, coaching, and consulting with individuals and organizations; most can’t tell me what their core values are and, if they can, they certainly can’t tell me with any real clarity what those values actually mean.

So, can you tell me what your core values actually mean in specific, unambiguous terms? If you can, terrific! I congratulate you and hope you’ll read the rest of this article anyway for grins and giggles. However, my experience tells me that what will more likely happen is that you will tell me – quite automatically – that you can clearly state your core values when, in fact, you actually can’t.

Here are three things I suggest you do if you want me – or anyone else – to be clear that what you’re calling your core values are actually your core values:

1. You need to be able to give specific behavioral examples of what both adhering and not adhering to your values means. Not “Well, you know, it’s kind of like when you…” types of examples but specific, concrete examples for which you and anyone else could hold you accountable. (Call me a stickler for detail but I’ll say that if you can’t tell me what your values actually mean – in very concrete, behavioral terms – you can’t possibly know whether or not you are living and working by them. It’s the equivalent of trying to enforce a policy you don’t have. Unless you can clearly tell me what your values mean, you can’t possibly tell me, or anyone else, whether or not your behavior is aligned with those values – you have no actual metric available to you.)

2. Are those values your most important, most persistent priorities? If they aren’t, they may indeed be values you hold dear but they aren’t your core values. Your core values will tell you – and anyone else paying attention to you – what always comes first if you have a decision to make. (NOTE: Your core values aren’t what you wish would come first but what actually comes first in your thinking. Of course, they can also be what you aspire to have come first but aspiration alone won’t cut it here. You have to be consciously and intentionally working on first behavioralizing and then acting based on those values or you’re simply gunning for style points.)

3. Are your values stated in such as way as to help you make better and more consistent decisions? If you can’t conceptualize your core values as a tool for better decision-making, you aren’t done yet. Otherwise, sure, they may be your values but they aren’t driving anything and, if they aren’t driving anything, your talking about them is little more than an academic exercise. (And, um, if your supposedly core values aren’t actually driving your behavior, what does that say about your values, your behavior, or both?)

In my coaching and consulting, I am pretty much relentless in getting my clients to work on the above questions. After all, if your goal is to live by your core values, you had better know what those values are and what they mean.

Whether personally or organizationally, if you want to develop a values-driven culture – and ethics, compliance, and accountability all count on that – being sure that what you’re calling your core values are, in fact, your core values is a critical piece of the process.

I hope the questions above will help you be sure that your stated core values are, in fact, your core values. In either case, if I can be helpful to you or your company in answering these questions or more effectively leveraging your answers, I hope you’ll let me know.

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