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3 Reasons your core values aren’t working for you (and what to do about it)

Artistic photo of half an apple showing the core and seeds as it leans against an uncut apple. The apple core is a metaphor for looking inside when a company's core values aren't working.
Photo credit: John Vid via Unsplash

It’s becoming popular to suggest that company core values are a waste of time. For most companies, they actually are. If all you care about is money, you probably don’t need a core value to say that.

If you’re interested in something more - long-range purpose beyond money, for example - core values can be a competitive advantage.

Most companies are not fully committed to being led by values tied to their purpose and mission. It might be one reason your core values aren't working for you.

This may sound inflammatory and I hope it inspires you to take another look in these three areas:

  • They’re incomplete

  • They’re corrupted

  • They’re not integrated

If you had a chance to invest in a competitive advantage, wouldn’t you?

Properly defined and implemented core values can vastly improve your employee engagement while helping you deliver increased enterprise value.

What are core values?

Core values are fundamental beliefs.

When a company says it has core values, it means the people working within the company agree to a set of beliefs that will guide and govern the way they will act both individually and as a group. Core values are a foundational component (one of several) in building a successful company culture.

Unfortunately, many companies fail to invest properly in defining their core values. This, in turn, leads to several adverse results ranging from inconsistent use of core values to a culture of “say one thing, do another”.

Imagine being told by multiple layers of management to lie to an important customer while the same business card you handed to that customer says “our integrity is never compromised”. It’s a true story and one in which the management team’s direction was exactly the opposite of the company’s stated core values.

How does this happen?

Your core values aren’t working because they are incomplete

Companies often fail to successfully use core values because they’ve only gone part of the way into defining them.

Core values definition failure point #1 - Acronyms

Acronymization is among the most common core values failures.

It happens when a visionary, CEO, or other leader finds a word they like and uses the letters to. With empathy, it’s far easier to communicate core values when you can make a memorable word out of it.

For example, a scrappy new startup might embrace the idea of grit - that character quality of doing hard things and persevering against all odds. G.R.I.T. is pretty easy to remember and it’s “on brand.” At that point, someone will almost always say “what works will allow us to spell grit.” This is where the core values exercise fails.

It’s not that acronyms are bad - in fact, they’re super helpful.

But they’re a terrible way to define some of the most foundational elements of a company’s culture.

Core values definition failure point #2 - Simplicity

As with all things, simplicity brings clarity. Unless it is too simple.

everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler

Attributed to Albert Einstein, 1933

Founders, CEOs, and other leaders often select a single word to reflect a core value. “Integrity” is a common example. It is often set up as a strawman argument against core values. This is understandable. It’s also a mistake.

The trouble with single word core values is that they lack shared understanding.

If you’ve ever watched court testimony about an accident scene, you know that the observer’s perspective changes the narrative about how the accident happened.

To solve this problem with core values, we can add a phrase that scopes the meaning. Here again, “Integrity” offers an opportunity to explore further.

One definition of integrity is centered around the question “did we do what we said we would do?” A leader can then say their core value is “Integrity - we do what we say we will do.”

This expanded definition sets a more clear framework for guiding decisions and behaviors. It also paves the way for more explanatory resources such as the organization’s management practices and employee handbook sections - more on those in the section on integrating core values.

Your core values aren’t working because they are corrupted

There are many reasons your core values might be corrupted.

Core values corruption failure point #1 - They’re not core

Core means “center”, “nucleus”, and “essence”. If you pull out the core, there’s no essential basis for the thing.

Gravity? It comes from the processes that are happening in earth’s core.

Apples? The fruit grows from the end of the stem that becomes the most central part of the apple.

An acid test of whether or not a belief is core to an organization is to ask: “would I fire someone for more than one violation of this belief?

If the answer is no, it’s a corrupted core value.

Here's an important point. The word "would" is intentional - it's not "will". You aren't required to fire somebody. The purpose of this evaluation is that a violation of this value strikes so close to your core that it's a high effort, intentional choice to keep the person around after they've violated it. There's absolutely room for grace and compassion. But if grace and compassion are regularly abused, it might mean that you're holding onto someone who just isn't the right fit.

Core values corruption failure point #2 - They contain practices

When we find non-core values, there’s a good chance they represent practices for which we want our organization to be known. They’re good behaviors - but behaviors aren’t values (we define values as beliefs).

Core values should naturally lead to a wider set of behaviors and practices we want to see.

Your company’s values will not likely work well for the long term if practices are mixed in.

Your core values aren’t working because you’re not living them

In most cases, a failure to deeply integrate core values into an organization happens because of one of the two earlier failures - they’re incomplete or they’re corrupted.

The rest of the time?

They fail because the team doesn’t understand how important it is to have them integrated at every cultural touch point. Here are a few (20, to be exact) - including some you might not expect:

  • In your bylaws

  • In your board policy manual

  • In your board member nomination form

  • In your employee handbook

  • In your job postings

  • In your job descriptions

  • In your interview questions

  • In your one-on-ones

  • In your performance reviews (if you’re doing those)

  • In your performance improvement plans

  • In your employee recognition programs

  • In your retrospectives

  • In your staff development plans

  • In your supplier agreements

  • In your contractor agreements

  • In your customer agreements

  • In your customer fit analysis

  • In your sales materials

  • In your donor relations packets (if you’re a non-profit)

  • In your annual report

Sure, you can put them on the wall and your business cards. But don’t do it if you’re not committed to living and talking about them

This is what went wrong at Enron. Instead of making their core values the cornerstone, they created a robust set of documentation that had little influence on their culture.

Jeff McMahon was the Chief Financial Officer who sent company-wide expectations and was found guilty of securities fraud for actions he took at the same time.

…several examples reveal that the culture stood opposed to these core values. Instead of reinforcing the code of ethics and the list of virtuous core values, the actions of leadership established a culture with values of greed and pride. While the printed code of ethics described the company’s commitment to “conducting the business affairs of the companies in accordance with all applicable laws and in a moral and honest manner” (Enron, 2000, p. 5) and espoused the virtues of integrity and respect as core values, the behaviors and attitudes of its people often stood on the opposing pole.

The results were disastrous.

Actions shape culture.

Enron is one of the most famous modern examples of core values failure. Don’t be like Enron.

Core values are the connective tissue between a company’s mission (vision & purpose) and its cultural practices.

Qualtrics suggests that core values can have positive ROI across several experience management metrics:

  • Revenue: increases 4x faster

  • Cost per hire: 50% savings

  • Recruitment fees: 22% reduction

  • Employee engagement and profitability: when investments in employee engagement are increased by 10%, profits can increase by $2400 per employee

  • Employee retention is dramatically increased

  • Customer satisfaction doubles

You can use clear, measurable, and well integrated core values to positively influence everything but they are nothing if every single leader is not living them. Daily.


Core values are a strategic advantage.

If they’re just a check-box so you can say you’ve got them, you’re worse off than if you had no documented core values in the first place. Don’t be like Enron.

Define them well.

Ensure they are a valuable and active part of your organizational culture. It’s an investment well worth making.


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