Business leaders frequently struggle with the concept of organizational values — not because they find them unimportant, but because their core and interim values are often incongruent.
Every institution has a set of core beliefs it adheres to. They form the central foundation by which your business operates, and they rarely change. As a rule of thumb, a value takes on the adjective “core” if you would go out of business before compromising it.
While core values are stable, the marketplace certainly isn’t, and that’s where interim beliefs emerge. For example, if market share dips, your organization must shift its focus and adopt new guiding principles in response. While these company-wide tenets may be reactionary, they’re no less important. They can be the driving factors that trigger a change in behavior or a new initiative that helps you stay competitive.
As your attention shifts, a chasm can form between your core and interim values. This is where frustration is born. The key is to only implement interim values that directly support your core ones.
Take Coca-Cola, for instance. The beverage company has survived for more than a century because of its ability to constantly reinvent itself. Recently, Coke has been trying to appeal to Millennials. It designed the Freestyle drink machine to encourage co-creation and customization. This reflects a major shift from its manufacturing focus, but these interim values still support its core mission to “refresh the world” and “inspire moments of optimism and happiness.”
Although the process of establishing congruent values will be unique to each organization, here are three tactics to keep you on the right track.
1. Engage Decision Makers.
While developing core principles, be proactive about engaging as many decision makers as possible. As you define the values most important to your organization, keep them short and sweet, and only choose a handful. Otherwise, people will never remember them — let alone follow them.
One company that understands this well is JetBlue Airways. It only has five core values: safety, caring, integrity, fun, and passion. Keeping its fundamental themes succinct improves customer and employee recall and observance.
2. Don’t Leave Room for Interpretation.
Some principles take a nosedive simply because they haven’t been sufficiently defined. A core value like “fun,” for example, leaves much room for interpretation. If you don’t explain its specific meaning, how can you expect employees to follow it? What’s more, you won’t know how interim values could influence or disrupt your core ones if those guiding principles aren’t clear to begin with.
For example, one of my company’s core values is “relatable expertise.” Each employee might interpret that phrase differently, which creates conflict in all communication channels. As a simple solution, we explicitly defined the value to mitigate any ambiguity and promote adherence.
3. Discuss the Implications.
As the need emerges, engage in explicit dialogue on how interim values can be promoted without compromising your organization’s core principles. If it’s not possible, you’ll need to do some serious soul-searching to find interim values that align with what’s at the heart of your business. Even when core beliefs aren’t explicit, a fundamental sense of “right” and “wrong” ways of doing things develops over time, and you must take this into consideration as well.
Throughout several reinventions, JetBlue has pivoted its interim values to drive performance, but it hasn’t compromised its five core principles. In fact, the company’s interim values actually support and reinforce its core ones. As a result, JetBlue has continued to grow and earned the J.D. Power and Associates award for highest customer satisfaction for nine years running.
As the business environment evolves, you’ll find yourself changing priorities and areas of focus. It’s unavoidable. The trick is to avoid compromising your core principles in the process. Remember, interim values come and go. But as long as you maintain the beliefs that are at the heart of your organization, your employees and clients will always know what you stand for.