Marketing

If your values don’t push back, they’re probably principles

Michel Hogan /

During what passes for idle chatter during coffee and networking at a recent event, the throw-away comment, “I think values are a load of rubbish” got my attention. Because too often rubbish is what companies big and small peddle.

We continued to talk and agreed that when people say values, they often mean principles. 

Back in dim recesses of 2013, when the iPhone was version 5 and Twitter eyed its IPO, I wrote an article about how people confuse them. Today organisations shout what they claim to believe at every opportunity. 

So, I’m revisiting the topic because many organisational values statements are more principle statements, and I have a simple rule of thumb for what distinguishes them.

How do you tell the difference between a value and a principle? 

If ‘the value’ is something you won’t trade, a non-negotiable that can, at times, be a competitive disadvantage, then it likely is a value.

If it is situational, something you will trade for the right offer or to take advantage of contrary conditions, then it’s probably a principle.

Values are enduring and rarely change. Principles evolve to your circumstances and can change. They don’t have to, but they can and often do.

The idea of ‘caring for the environment’ is one example of a principle which often masquerades as a value. Sure, for some companies, it really is a value deeply embedded in how they do business.

For everyone else, it’s a principle. Something people care enough about to highlight and include in a few convenient business processes, such as the copy paper they use and placing recycling bins in the kitchen. 

But if push came to shove. If a juicy opportunity appeared, or if shareholders applied pressure around cost. If the situation meant it became a disadvantage. Would it push back or give way?

The tug-of-war might suggest principles are worth less than values. However, everyone has both, and they are essential in their own right.

When employed alongside values, principles provide a productive tension that leads to better decisions more in sync with the current business landscape. They help values stay relevant, providing context for how they get used. Also, by calling them principles, you can avoid the ‘oh yeah right’ reaction.

Because when you read a company’s values and think ‘oh yeah right’, it means something doesn’t add up given what you’ve observed or experienced.

For example, saying ‘our people are our greatest asset’ is a value doesn’t add up when layoffs and redundancies follow. ‘Our customers come first’ is made mockery when lined up against the day-to-day choices that preference policy over common- sense. And ‘honesty and integrity’ are tantamount to outright values fraud when lies and broken promises are the standard operating procedure.

Setting aside wilful blindness, the mix up of values and principles is due to the absence of deep work. Without interrogating and rigorously testing what is truly non-negotiable, it’s small wonder they get confused.

So, bringing the discussion around to brand and promises. You can’t build a robust, resilient brand result. And make promises you can keep if you don’t recognise the difference between your values and your principles, and grasp how and when to use them.

See you in two weeks.

This is a rewritten version of an article first published on May 20, 2013.

NOW READ: Five signs your company values might be bullshit

NOW READ: An organisation’s core values erode with time

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.

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