In his HBR article, “Make your Core Values Mean Something,” Patrick Lencioni suggests that we should avoid three things when developing Core Values:

  • Values that are so aspirational that they have no credibility with the team
  • Values that are minimal expectations of performance; what Lencioni calls “pay to play.”
  • Values that are accidental, without strategic intention or cultivation.

When Core Values are too aspirational they lose their credibility with the team. They seem out of reach and unrealistic. They represent a desired future state but lack any representation in reality. Aspirational values are about an organization that you hope to become and therefore, not representative of the organization you are. Moderately aspirational values can work, but they must be managed very closely or risk losing credibility. Tie your Core Values to “Rock Stars” in your organization to make a credible claim. When people see values that they experience in others they are more credible. When Core Values are “pay to play” they represent minimal expectations. Trust is a common value that meets this criterion. While trust is important in any organization, if your employees lie, cheat and steal you will likely fire them immediately. Trust, per se, is a not a distinguishing characteristic that defines and differentiates your culture. It is a minimal expectation. We expect trust in all organizations. As mentioned in my prior post, culture often forms organically, without intention or thought. Culture is a byproduct in response to experiences that generate commonly held beliefs. When Core Values are accidental, they often lack strategic focus or consideration. They lack the influence and persuasion that comes from clarity and commitment around a shared set of beliefs.

The Power of Imagination

 In Yuval Noah Harari’s book, “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind,” he describes how, in nature, a congress of chimpanzees limit their size to approximately 100 individuals. Beyond this, the group will fracture and break into smaller, independent groups. Humans share this characteristic, naturally limiting group size to approximately 150 individuals before politics and power struggles break the group apart. However, humans have a unique ability that can organize and motivate them well beyond natural limits. Humans have the ability to imagine a future and align with it emotionally.

“Humans have the power of story. Every political, religious, economic and military effort that has captivated the masses and motivated them to action has, behind it, a great story.”

Humans have the power of story. Every political, religious, economic and military effort that has captivated the masses and motivated them to action has, behind it, a great story. Story helps us understand what might be and provides the path to a possible future outcome. Story holds our attention and fuels our imagination. Story gives us purpose, meaning and ­— place in the world and among our “tribe.” Core Values set the stage for great storytelling and the best Core Values captivate the imagination. In this sense Core Values exist on a continuum, from the very generic (Communication, Respect, Integrity; these are Enron’s Core Values by the way!) to colorful imaginative words or phrases we call ISMs (Slay the Dragons, Pack Your Own Chute, After You, Get Goosed!). An ISM engages the “theater of the mind” and captivates the imagination. There is no magic number of Core Values but we do find that too few limits our ability to emphasize certain important behaviors. When we rationalize and condense our Core Values into two or three phrases, it becomes difficult to parse them into behaviors that are most important. Core Value is more art than science. Your role as a leader is to help identify the ideas, concepts and behaviors most important to your organization.  Core Values must answer three questions: what, why and how.

  1. What is the value? Describe it for me. What does it look and feel like?
  2. Why is it important to our organization and our customers?
  3. How does it show up? What are the behaviors that we look for that tell us the Core Value is in place?

Typically a Core Value is represented by a work or phrase, a brief paragraph describing what the Core Value is and Why is important and a set of bulleted, first person descriptions of how the Core Value behavior shows up. Here an example:


Passion, Positivity, Optimism and Enthusiasm At Company XYZ, going “above and beyond” – and doing so with passion, pride and enthusiasm – is what defines us. We set goals, and exhibit an unrelenting drive towards achieving those goals. A willingness to do “whatever it takes” is central in our actions, and we’re always first to volunteer. Our people ooze with high energy and encouragement, and these traits propel us to higher levels of performance.

  • We exhibit a positive and optimistic disposition
  • We ask: “What else can I do?”
  • We frame problems and challenges as opportunities to grow & improve
  • We take personal pride in our work, as our work is a reflection of our passion
  • We set goals, and drive relentlessly towards achieving those goals
  • When we achieve our goals, or help others achieve theirs, we take time to recognize and reflect upon our achievements

Whether generic or ISM, your Core Values help to tell a story about what is important and how people are expected to act. The strongest Core Values:

  • Are emotional, memorable and sticky
  • Are accessible and do not intimidate.
  • Cultivate your mythology

Core Values that are emotional, memorable and sticky engage the imagination. What, in radio, is a referred to as “the theater of the mind.” Getting your Core Values to stick is about getting people to pay attention. When a Core Value is interesting it is more likely to get past our natural filters or defenses and into the regions of the mind where it can hold on and become more meaningful. When Core Values entertain they are more likely to take hold.

“We don’t beat them with a Core Values stick.”

Great Core Values are not judgments or a means of intimidation. We don’t hold Core Values over someone’s head as judge, jury and executioner. We don’t beat them with a Core Values stick. Great Core Values inspire and engage the audience. We see ourselves in them and accept them as an extension of our own beliefs. They help us connect and align with the organization of which we are part. Colorful, entertaining, interesting Core Values are less easily ignored, dismissed and deflected and more likely to be accepted. It’s not difficult to see why someone would be less intimidated by Core Value like “Slay the Dragons” and more likely to be intimidated by a Core Value like “Integrity.” One raises curiosity and cultivates the imagination, the other a judgment of your character. One entertains the other elicits a defense response. The best Core Values are yours. You own them. They are part of your mythology, no one else’s. The best Core Values define your organization and give meaning to the people within it. They are your story, your culture, and your company. And stories, as describe earlier, can be powerful tools for engagement. Would you like some assistance building core values that truly define your organization? The team here at BCCI is always happy to help. Reach out anytime!