What companies need to understand to identify meaningful values

We’ve all seen examples of companies with lofty (or at the other extreme, meaningless) values that are, honestly, quite laughable. Boasting about your values to your customers and employees but not acting on them—or acting in opposition to them—is a surefire way to alienate those folks and create cynicism about your company.

For sure, at times this disconnect comes because the company just sucks. (Very professional of me, eh?) But I think other times it can come in part from not understanding the different types of values at play, which results in confusion and misalignment within the business.

A 2002 article from HBR breaks down four types of values companies should consider:

  • Core values are “the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions.” These values should never be compromised, and they often reflect the values of the company’s founders.
  • Aspirational values are “those that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks.” In the same way that people can mistake aspirational values for their core values (of course health is one of my values, I say, as I sit here munching away on chocolate), companies can as well.
  • Permission-to-play values “simply reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee.” Unless your company does something super special to bring a value of, say, honesty to life, it’s not likely something that needs mentioning.
  • Accidental values reflect the company’s employees and “arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership.” These types of values can help build an inclusive company culture, but HBR warns to take care with these. At the very least, you aren’t aiming for them when first identifying your company’s values.

What do you think? Do values play a role in your company? Are values important to you when deciding who to do business with?


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