The Importance of a Small Set of Core Values

What are core values?

Jim Collins offers a good definition in an essay in the Harvard Business Review: “Core values are the essential and enduring tenets of an organization. A small set of timeless guiding principles, core values require no external justification; they have intrinsic value and importance to those inside the organization.” Some of our clients already have a codified set of core values when we begin working with them, but many do not. In either case, core values play an important role in our process and they sit at level 4 of the Brand Pyramid.

Values are meaningful only when accompanied by long-term commitment.

Collins discusses at length the fact that since core values are fundamental, they should remain constant over time: “A company should not change its core values in response to market changes; rather, it should change markets, if necessary, to remain true to its core values.” At Tronvig Group, we endorse this idea: While business strategy should (indeed, must) be dynamic and responsive, values are meaningful only when accompanied by long-term commitment. We also agree with Collins that a small set of values is best. He states that none of the companies studied in his book Built to Last had more than five; our position is that the ideal is three.

Why so few?

Collins says this is the logical result of the very high bar set by the definition of what core values are: “Only a few values can be truly core—that is, so fundamental and deeply held that they will change seldom, if ever.” This isn’t wrong, but I think there is more to be said on this point that Collins does not address. I also think that core values can be powerful in ways that Collins does not describe.

small set of core valuesTo illustrate, let’s start with an example from a past client. When we began taking them through our process, they had six core values that formed an acronym that had entered common parlance inside the organization. For reasons of anonymity, I’ve come up with a different but analogous values scheme to use in this example:

PREACH: Professionalism, Respect, Effectiveness, Authenticity, Courage, Honesty

Core values should not come from the outside; they should be latent within an organization.

Despite our conviction that it is best for values to remain constant over time, there are a few reasons why this set off red flags. First, the scheme came from an outside consultant. “PREACH” is an “off-the-shelf” set of values attached to a leadership development program. I don’t mean to denigrate the program, and many people who went through it told us that it made a powerful impression on them. Still, core values should not come from the outside; they should be latent within an organization.

Second, this scheme ignores redundancy in service of a pithy acronym. Professionalism overlaps with both respect and effectiveness; authenticity overlaps significantly with honesty. “PREACH” is made up, but the real version has similar redundancies.

A third issue is that, as mentioned above, six is simply too many values to consider individually. Combine this high number with the redundancies between words and you get a predictable result: The values are usually elided into a singular whole rather than considered individually. Employees would sometimes comment on decisions or question their colleagues by saying “that’s not very PREACH of you.” To me, this predictable result seems intended: Why else would you make such a clear effort to search for a memorable acronym?

To allow and even encourage core values to be blended together is misguided. It lets people give the values a generalized definition that they can easily fit into a narrative that suits them. It negates what we at Tronvig Group see as one of the key features of a good set of core values: They should interact and balance each other such that they force people to think through their application. Jim Collins may agree with us here, but he does not go into the details of how core values are best applied.

Core values should interact and balance each other such that they force people to think through their application.

Any value can be taken too far depending on how it is defined. Authenticity and honesty are good values for the sincerity and openness that they bring to the workplace, but they could be toxic if used to justify overly personal or mean-spirited comments. Hence the need for a balancing value like respect. If you have a superior or a client making what you see as an unreasonable request that would hinder your effectiveness, you could use the courage value to justify a polite (professional) refusal or at least to open a discussion rather than simply acquiescing.

Who can use the core values?

Thinking through interactions like these is a critical part of putting core values to effective use within an organization. If you have too many values for everyone to remember easily, or if they are easily combined into a single vague idea, they won’t be effective. It’s crucial to remember that everyone must keep the values top-of-mind. Collins does not emphasize this point in his article. He limits his sample applications of core values to high-level corporate strategy and his discussion seems directed toward the executive suite, but our position is that core values must be used by people in every level of an organization. Ideally, decisions large and small are naturally and automatically measured against the values.

Ideally, decisions large and small are naturally and automatically measured against the values.

Making this happen is a primary goal of our organizational alignment work. Done successfully, alignment work is empowering to everyone in an organization in two primary ways: First, the values provide a framework to evaluate decisions and be confident in the choices you make, ultimately allowing employees to become more autonomous. Second, they provide a context for discussion and debate that is above roles or relative levels of authority. Decisions should be right or wrong based on principles, not on authority that may be exercised arbitrarily. Core values are these principles. They act like a constitution. Everyone, at all levels, can and should question a practice or a directive if they feel it conflicts with the values framework. You might not win the argument when you question a superior, and that’s fine. The point is that you brought up the question at all, and the hope is that you are given a thoughtful response.

Collins writes in his article that “the key is not what core values an organization has but that it has core values at all.” We agree with this point wholeheartedly. We trust that our clients hold positive values—we wouldn’t work with them otherwise. We have seen a wide range of core values and new ones show up all the time in new engagements. What is important—what we “PREACH” in our work—is that these values be well-defined and few enough in number that everyone can remember them every day and check their decisions against them, almost like a reflex.

Core values act like a constitution.

So what of PREACH? We successfully argued that it should be changed, but we knew that doing so would be delicate. We wanted to hear a broad range of perspectives and make sure we landed on something everyone could buy into. So we conducted workshops in all key operational locations around the country and asked participants what they saw as the organization’s core values. Sure enough, in none of the workshops did all six PREACH values surface. One of the values never came up in any of the workshops. Point taken, said the executive leadership.

Still, throughout the process, it did become clear that the concept of PREACH was important to many people in the company. It had facilitated an important healing process after a particularly difficult time in the company’s history and those who lived through that time had invested significant emotional energy into PREACH and the associated leadership program. We decided it would be imprudent to get rid of it entirely. Given the redundancy within, we felt we could determine which concepts were most important and distill PREACH into a simpler three-value scheme (no acronym). This path allowed us to stay true to the principle of a short list of truly core values without ignoring the importance of keeping the values constant over time.

Which of the following situations we’ve encountered best reflects your organization today?

  • Situation A: Our core values are implicit but have never been written down or defined.
  • Situation B: We have values written down somewhere but nothing is done with them.
  • Situation C: We have values, they are up on the wall, and we apply them in certain contexts, but they are a bit of a laundry list and no one knows them all except a few people from the “brand police.”
  • Situation D: We have done a lot of work on the core values but they are tools of management. They do not really serve to empower or motivate employees.
  • Situation E: We have a small set of core values that everyone in the organization knows and lives by. They are well defined, deeply felt, and thoroughly understood. They serve to guide decisions large and small and help us resolve conflicts that inevitably arise within the organization. They are used in selecting new hires and as part of our performance reviews. They exist as principles that supersede and underlie people’s authority within the organization. They are a key part of why I work here.

It should be no surprise that Situation E is what we want all of our clients who have gone through a full alignment process to be able to say of themselves. This is not an easy outcome, but the rewards in terms of employee commitment and contributions are profound. This is what we believe undergirds the importance values play in the remarkable success of the “Good to Great” companies that Jim Collins selected from the sea of contenders in 20th-century American history.

We encourage you to honestly assess where you are on this situational scale:

  • What are your organizational core values?
  • Have they been explicitly codified?
  • How many do you have? Are they few enough that each one can be used to facilitate decision-making?
  • Does everyone at every level of your organization understand what they mean and know how to apply them to the specific work that they do?

Our alignment work is arguably the most fascinating, inspirational, and consequential work that we do. It all starts with a small set of core values.

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Blog illustration for Tronvig Group by Sage Einarsen

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