Organizations don’t have Values

Organizations don’t have values, people do.

People have personal values. They value determination, or happiness, or creativity. They value religion, friendships, or adventure. Values are personal, often moral, traits people hold high.

Values are imprecise and aspirational. They’re often in tension with each other. Determination and happiness, friendship and authority, self-respect and humility. One person can value them all.

Organizations don’t have those. They may prefer, even seek out, people who hold some of those values. They may want employees who value determination, or compassion, or community. But the organization doesn’t have those, the people do.

Organizations have priorities. They prioritize quality over cost. Or diversity over seniority. Or speed over safety. These help the people make the thousands of decisions they face every day. The leaders set those priorities, often using their personal values as guideposts.

Priorities are, by definition, ordered. This is more important than that. The best are clear, careful, and measurable. The better to make decisions with.

This confusion causes organizations to conflate values with priorities. To talk about “quality” or “diversity” as a value. To create Core Value proclamations that are a jumble of values and priorities. And end up with corporate speak that says nothing.

Some organizations define the values they want to see in their people. To set a priority on people who have some values over others. This is especially the case in social service or mission-driven non-profit organizations.

Most organizations, however, can benefit from having people with a broad mix of personal values. To see those values as yet another aspect of diversity to celebrate, explore, and reward. 

What they need instead are people who are all carefully aligned on the priorities. Because the priorities are what define the results.