The Value of (Opinionated) Core Values

If they can’t be wrong, they can’t be right

Note: this essay complements the Core Values policy in Mark II.

Core values get a bad rap. Images of executives in cheesy training videos and uninspiring “inspirational” posters spring to many a mind at the mere thought. Empty slogans abound. To understand why, let’s first review what makes core values so valuable when done right.

First, core values provide cultural norms - a shared way of doing things. Humans largely take the cultural norms of their societies for granted because they are with us from birth and play a silent part in everyday life. Whereas organic groups like societies have unplanned cultural norms, groups like companies can institute planned norms - a significant strength if done correctly.

Second, core values provide an identity. Core values are the ideas the company and its team members stand for. There are lots of ideas-based identities out there that have proven to be pretty powerful: religions, political creeds, etc. Companies can harness similar potential.

Third, core values provide instructions. No manager is infinitely scalable, and no manager can tell their direct reports what to do in every situation. How should team members decide what to do when they don’t have specific instructions? Core values provide the framework team members need to make decisions.

To provide any of the above, though, core values must be opinionated.

To see why, consider the reverse case, where the core values are truisms or objective facts. They won’t provide cultural norms, since norms vary by group. They won’t provide an identity, since they will be universal. They won’t provide instructions, since they will already be part of the set of facts team members use to make decisions. In short, adding no new information can’t change how things work.

An easy way to see if your core values are opinionated is to argue for the opposite position. If you can’t put together a plausible argument, your core values aren’t opinionated. The cliche core values mentioned at the top fail the argument test.

If your company’s core values fail the test, don’t fret. Take the time to discover what your company believes that other companies may not, write them down, and see what the team thinks. Done right, it will pay dividends for years to come.