The Problem with Values

Many organizations proudly tout them.

But are value statements worth the time taken to write them?


Here are some examples:

  • “Observe and preserve our core values of open communication, empowerment, inclusion, integrity, and trust.” (Cisco)
  • “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” (Boy Scouts of America)
  • Explore, enjoy and protect the planet.” (Sierra Club)
  • “Integrity – It is the core of who we are and all we do; Teamwork – Determined people working together can accomplish anything.; Service – Serving the needs of our customers and communities is central to our success.; Quality and Efficiency-We remain constructively dissatisfied in our pursuit of excellence.; Safety – The well-being of our people, business partners, and the public is of utmost importance.; Sustainability-Long-term prosperity requires our continued commitment to environmental stewardship and social responsibility; Innovation – Creativity and change are essential to growth.” (United Postal Service)

The trouble is the unless there’s some specific definition for a value, they’re words prone to broad interpretation. Anyone who has been in a college dorm knows that one person’s “dirty” is another person’s “clean.” “Respect” for one person is a salute and mindless follow; for someone else it means critical engagement and vigorous debate.

So what does it look like when you wrap definition around words? It give you a much clearer, less ambiguous definition of what the value actually means.

IBM shows a way that’s a helpful series of illustrations for each value. Here’s an example:

“Dedication to every client’s success.


  • are passionate about building strong, long-lasting client relationships. This dedication spurs us to go “above and beyond” on our client’s behalf.
  • are focused on outcomes. We sell products, services and solutions to help our clients succeed, however they measure success.
  • demonstrate this personal dedication to every client, from the largest corporation and government agency to the smallest organization.
  • no matter where they work, have a role in client success. It requires the full spectrum of IBM expertise.”

San Francisco Day School, a private co-ed K-12 school in San Francisco, shows a similar path to putting  definition on their values. Here’s an example:

“We believe in bringing your whole self to school. When you’re a part of the SFDS community, we want to see ALL of you. And it is our job to provide an environment that welcomes you to share every aspect of your self. Psychological safety and the confidence to reveal your “whole self” provides the readiness for intellectual risk-taking and the basis for critical thinking. Building upon the common ground within our community, while celebrating the differences among families and individuals, are hallmarks of San Francisco Day School.

You get the picture. If you want organizational values to be worth something, wrap your values in defining language so that they actually mean something.

Like an organization’s strategic plan without any quantitative measures (e.g SMART goals), values without definition are empty exercises without durable worth.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.

Picture: Getty Images