What Happens When “Core Values” Fail

What Happens When “Core Values” Fail


There’s an interesting phenomenon in our nation’s capital, called The Washington Monument Paradox. DC residents love the giant obelisk honoring our first President. They will tell you it’s unique and awesome, the symbol of their great city. But if you ask when they last visited the monument they will likely look blankly at you and stammer, “I dunno. Maybe when I was a kid?”

Sadly, I think the same is true for the Core Values of some businesses. These guiding principles should permeate an organization at every level from its founding. Unfortunately, in my experience, employees too often may be aware and even vaguely proud of the idea of the organization’s Core Values, but they aren’t intimately familiar with them and too often ignore these vital guideposts in crucial moments of day-to-day work.

Let me give you a pointed example. My wife recently placed a $200 online order with a well-known fast-fashion retailer. In the process of entering her payment and delivery information, the store’s system defaulted to an incorrect address that was similar to ours.  When her order didn’t arrive by the promised date, she called the retailer and was told that her items were confirmed as delivered to the wrong address. And that was that.

So, we figured we’d drive to that address and see if maybe her package was sitting on somebody’s front porch. We traveled across town only to discover there is no such address in Atlanta – not in that zip code, nowhere.

Our first few puzzled calls to their customer service went unreturned. When we finally did get a customer service manager on the line, it was like trying to extract information from a recorded message. No matter what added information we provided or question we asked, his response was the same: “I understand, but there is nothing we can do.”

Over and over.  

Despite my personal frustration, professional curiosity kicked in. I asked the manager about the store’s Core Values. He muttered something about delivering fashion forward clothing at affordable prices. When I asked if there was anything in there about customer service, it quickly became clear that he didn’t know.

Compare that to Nordstrom, where the central value is ensuring an excellent customer experience, and every employee understands their role in hewing to that principle.

I’m a big believer in Core Values. A business that fails to instill such guiding principles from its inception is like a ship sailing along a rocky coast in a fog without a compass or chart. Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. 

But it’s not enough to just have Core Values. In order to make a difference, your company’s Core Values must reside in the hearts and minds of your team members – not just in that fancy frame outside the CEO’s office. You can’t just roll them out in a staff email or webinar and call it done. Every single team member – very top to very bottom – must internalize the Core Values and apply them in every single business interaction. 

Because that’s where they matter.


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