Common Errors When Establishing Small Business Core Values

The behaviours exhibited by an organization are called core values. In small business, the ownership and management team set them by example. EVERY small business has core values. Call it behaviour, call it culture – it’s just who they are. People like us do things like this.

Core values statements, on the other hand, are rarer to find. The statements name these deeply ingrained behaviours so they can be succinctly communicated. Companies that have no language to describe their core values find it difficult to set explicit behavioural guidelines. They consider how they do things as “common sense”, not recognizing that common sense is learned from experience.  When people don’t know your expectations, it becomes much more difficult for them to meet those expectations. A lack of core values statements makes hiring for fit, evaluating performance, and making go-no go decisions more complicated. Core values are the lens through which the organization looks at the world. Without the statements, the lens is foggy and frustrating.

Many businesses have established their core values statements, and yet still seem to struggle with those challenges. While there are numerous reasons why codifying their values may not elicit the intended results, here are the top five we’ve uncovered.

1. Not defining the words they choose.

Different people will see the same word and define it from a different perspective. Take the word, “kind.” Kind can be a core value. Is it kind to avoid a difficult conversation with an employee because we don’t want to hurt their feelings? What if they never get the feedback they need to advance in their career. What about “integrity”? That’s a popular value word. Are we behaving with integrity when we know winning that project will mean putting our staff on a lousy project, but we really need the cashflow right now? Business is complicated and there are no right answers, but a word without its definition won’t necessarily lead to the intended results. Let’s be clear.

2. Involving too many people.

Leaders often ask us if it’s better to involve the whole company in developing values statements. “We want to make sure we have buy-in,” they say. Crafting values statements is not an activity that requires buy-in. Core values are core – this is the way the best performers in the company already behave. The goal here is to uncover those behaviours and define them. Involving a wider group for this discovery phase makes sense, through interviews or surveys, but when the selection process begins it is a small group that identifies and tests which words are truly core and how to define those words. Decisions by committee rarely produce the best results. Buy-in then comes via the stories leadership shares that led them to select these specific core values. Staff will have aha moments when they recognize their own and others’ behaviours in the stories that are told.

3. Confusing aspirational with core.

Aspirational values are a thing too. We’d love to be the highest quality provider. We wish that quality was baked into every process in our organization. Lofty goals. Goals. Not values. Someday, with hard work, focus, perseverance, and a bit of luck, “quality” could be a core value in the organization. Before that time, stating that it is a core value and not demonstrating the behaviour will water down the impact of the core values statements themselves and could have the employees feeling jaded and that the leadership are hypocrites.

4. No testing.

Crafting core values statements is tough work and at the end of the first drafting process, there’s a tendency for the leaders to high-five all around and consider their work complete. Go ahead and celebrate. First drafts are hard work. But the work is not over. Once the statements have been crafted, they must be tested. Don’t carve your first iteration in stone.

5. Lack of reinforcement.

Often the values are crafted and announced but then rarely referred to again. It’s understandable why leadership might do this. After all, the values are core – everyone already knows this, right? In reality, the organization needs to be continuously steeped in the language. For example, values statements could be:

  • added to job description qualifications and performance evaluations
  • mentioned at the start of every meeting
  • criteria for selecting new suppliers
  • printed on SWAG
  • used in marketing copy
  • incorporated in quarterly themes

There is no rule that a small business craft core values statements, and no guide to the best way to do it. Sometimes, the people within the company are so aligned, the time it would take is not worth the effort. But if your organization is struggling with strategic decision making or employee fit, working through values exercises is a good start on the path to improvement.

Bellrock offers business leaders alternate perspectives on strategic challenges. We also translate that perspective into actionable plans that improve results. We even train managers on execution. Our purpose is to develop life-long relationships and raving fans. If you found this article valuable, don’t be stingy. Share.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

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