Does your organization have shared core values? No, not the stated values that may be written on a website, posted on walls, and recited to new hires. Well, maybe those, but only if the stated principles truly permeate the organization’s identity, define culture, shape leaders’ decisions, and guide day-to-day behavior for every organization member. Shared core values have long-lasting effects on the way people do work. Stated values, however, are often overlooked.
A Story of Shared Core Values
Shared core values really shine through when companies face tough decisions. When there’s a dilemma about deeply held principles, we’re glimpsing a core value at work.
Once upon a time, we encountered Company X. One of the core values of Company X is to contribute positively to the surrounding community. Company X fulfills this value by sponsoring and participating in local events, giving people work time to volunteer, and partnering with other local companies to support community causes.
One day, Company X received an invitation to do work. The invitation came with a hefty budget, at a time when work was thin. Unfortunately, the project’s purpose was contrary to Company X’s core values. The project would have a direct and negative impact on the surrounding community.
Company X was facing a clear values dilemma. Turning the work down would have a lasting financial impact on the company during an already challenging time that was creating job insecurity on the team. However, accepting the work would breach deeply-held core values that had inspired many team members to choose Company X as an employer and created a great deal of camaraderie and purpose.
So what did Company X do?
They put the decision on the table and explicitly highlighted the core values dilemma. The owners and leaders debated the merits and risks of each choice. They talked about the impact for themselves as leaders, for the rest of the organization, for current clients and other community partnerships, and for their reputation moving forward. They recognized the high stakes they were facing.
And then they turned down the work.
Looking back on that gut-wrenching moment, Company X’s leadership team could not be more proud of the decision to uphold shared core values over financial gain. The financial sacrifice was unquestionably tough, but the shared core values currency that accumulated on the team was priceless.
The Power of Shared Core Values
Shared core values are a powerful asset. They have a positive impact on people’s attitudes and behaviors.
Shared core values influence important work attitudes:
- Organizational commitment
- Job and career satisfaction
- Intention to stay
Shared core values also drive productive work behaviors:
- Helping out
Shared core values have a broad and positive impact on attitudes and behaviors because of fit. When people share core values, it’s easier for each individual to feel a sense of belonging. Being comfortably part of a team fosters trust and motivation. These in turn influence the positive work attitudes and productive behaviors listed above.
How to Foster Shared Core Values
What do leaders and managers do to boost shared core values?
Start with a Strong System.
Be deliberate about values alignment. Examine the key experiences people have as members of the organization, starting with recruiting and hiring, to job design, onboarding and training, to performance conversations and recognition habits, to communication and change, to leadership development. Are core values integrated into the way you’re looking at things, talking about things, and making decisions?
When a good person meets a bad system, the system always wins. – Frank Voehl
- Recruiting and Hiring: Are shared core values a focus when advertising job openings and screening applicants? What role do values and cultural fit play in hiring decisions? Are interviews as much about beliefs and principles as they are about skills and qualifications? Do hiring decision-makers know that hiring values-incongruent candidates can dilute culture and increase turnover? 
- Job Design: Are job responsibilities shaped with shared core values in mind? Do relationships among jobs reflect core beliefs (e.g., teamwork, trust)? Do job descriptions convey only a dry list of tasks, or do they express important values and principles that form the unique style of this organization?
- Onboarding and Training: Look at materials and programs intended to help people learn the ropes and gain capabilities. Do they focus on technical procedures or do they convey more? Can a new hire explain not only what the organization does, but also how and most importantly why it prefers a particular approach or standard? Can people identify work practices that are non-negotiable because of shared core values?
- Performance Conversations: Are core values part of performance discussions? Do team members have opportunities to hear manager views on what values-congruent performance looks like? When performance does not uphold shared core values, are people or teams asked to look at discrepancies and make course corrections?
- Appreciation and Recognition: Do people acting in ways that embody core values feel appreciated? If there are formal recognition programs, are core values a significant part of what triggers recognition?
- Communication: Are communications that represent the organization consistent with core values? This doesn’t mean every communication has to include a litany of values. But could someone reading or hearing the messages and information accuse your organization of holding your shared core values?
- Organizational Change: When something’s changing, is it evident how the new direction corresponds with shared core values? Are proposed changes considered in light of core values? Do leaders reject new directions or initiatives that are not consistent with core values?
- Leadership Development: Are aspiring leaders asked to revisit and consider shared core values as they grow their influence? Do leadership development discussions and programs highlight leaders’ importance as the face of the organization and its teams?
Add Leadership Accountability.
When an organization’s leaders jointly talk the talk AND walk the walk with shared core values, they have a tremendous collective impact.
Talking the talk matters. Repetition serves as a reminder of how central something is for the organization. Each mention can be fleeting, but if a journalist asked, “It’s interesting that you believe strongly in ___ around here. Tell me, when was the last time that came up in conversation?” the answer shouldn’t be “Well, I think I remember hearing about that when I was hired years ago…”
Walking the walk matters too. As social learning theory explains, people actively (and passively) observe others, and our observations influence our behaviors and choices. When leaders act in ways that are congruent with core values, others will consciously and subconsciously model those actions. Conversely, leaders acting in contrast with core values creates conflicting models and condones imitation of the wrong behavior.
Shape Day-to-Day Practices.
Notice the little stuff. Share observations in the moment when core values are especially evident or lacking.
“Thanks so much for ___. It really reminds me how important it is to ___.”
“This meeting isn’t feeling to me like our best example of ___. Is anyone else noticing that? Could we talk about how to get back on track with what we believe in?”
Revisit Values as You Change and Grow.
Organizations change and evolve, and some core values may not have an eternal shelf life. When you’re growing and adapting, entering new markets or shifting your mission some of the shared values will continue to be core principles. However, new values may surface and others may fall to the wayside.
Every once in a while, take the opportunity to reflect: Do our shared core values still matter? Do we stand for something different now than we did? Are there new beliefs that need to be non-negotiable to support our success?
More Coetic Core Values Resources:
- Free Core Values Tool – Explore what values that are most meaningful to your people.
- WorkWeek Nudges – Be consistent in strong people leadership practices in ways that align with and demonstrate your core values.
- Free Change Map Tool – Want to see a change in how your company approaches values? Map out your value aspirations!
- Communication WhiteBoard Tool – Reinforce core values in a fun virtual graffiti conversation.
- Core Values Brief in Coetic People Science – Dig deeper into the science on core values.
- Mission Alignment Brief in Coetic People Science – Learn the evidence for why alignment matters.