The difference between a value and a principle

Michel Hogan /

It’s been a while since we talked about values. And I’ve been doing a few projects lately helping organisations look at what they are.

However, in one recent project, we weren’t looking at values. We were looking at principles.

So what’s the difference?

I have a pretty simple rule of thumb for what divides a value from a principle (note: most organisations’ values statements are actually more principle statements).

If it is something you wouldn’t trade, a non-negotiable that can be a competitive disadvantage for you, then it’s probably a value.

If it is situational, if you will trade it in if the offer or conditions are right, 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).

Environmental sustainability (or language around that idea) is a great example of something a lot of organisations list as a value these days. For some of them, it really is a value.

But for many, it seems to be more of a principle. It’s something that they care about enough to talk about and include in business processes. But if push came to shove and the opportunity was bigger than the value, would it hold up?

I don’t want to make it seem like principles are worth less than values. They are important and valuable in their own right. And sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

When you read a company’s values statement and think “oh yeah right”, you might be seeing principles not values. The “oh yeah right” is because you experienced something that doesn’t add up, when you think about it in terms of being an enduring value that shouldn’t be traded.

For example, value statements such as “our people are our greatest asset” don’t add up when layoffs and redundancies follow. It probably should have been a principle.

As the saying goes – you know it when you see it.

One place where principles can be really useful is when you work as a team.

Teams often come together for short periods of time, around specific projects or initiatives. The members of a team often change, as does the agenda and goals they are working towards.

In that context, having a set of principles that the team shares can be a really useful way of agreeing how you will work together and the things you as a group collectively care about.

This all relates back to brand and promises. You can’t build a strong, resilient brand and make promises you can keep if you don’t understand what your values are. When you see an organisation whose brand doesn’t stack up, there’s a good chance that lurking somewhere are some principles sitting in the values column!

So does your business have values or principles? Or both? How do you use them?

See you next week.

Michel is an independent Brand Analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan

Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at

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  • It’s funny – The exact opposite definition of value and principle was given by the New York Times –

    He states there (in 1984) that values – as used by politicians, are those things that change and principles are the foundation of truth that do not. I think in your example you are thinking of the phrase “as a general principle” which some people use to say “normally” as in: “as a general principle (normally) we don’t do that, but we can make any exception”

    The number 1 definition of “principle” is “fundamental truth”. Where as a value is a personal opinion that something is important.

  • Tony

    Please disregard everything in this article. The author sounds like a nice lady, but she got things back to front.

    If you google the definition of “principle” you will see it is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour or for a chain of reasoning” and “a rule or belief governing one’s behaviour”. Whereas “value” is “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

    The author incorrectly wrote that “Values are enduring and rarely change. Principles evolve to your circumstances and can change.” In fact it is the reverse. A teenager might value partying as a youth, but change when she becomes a parent. But if honesty is a key principle of hers, she will remain honest throughout her life.