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How principles, purpose, and core values link to culture

Stephen Covey used to tell a story comparing principles to lighthouses. The moral of the story was that you don’t break principles. You break yourself against them.

Principles are timeless, natural laws that cannot be broken. They exist whether you choose to recognize them or not. Principles are guidelines for human conduct that are proven to have enduring, permanent value. They are essentially unarguable because they are self-evident. You can’t fake whether you honor principles.

Consider the principle of integrity. If your semi-annual dental cleaning is approaching and you recall your earlier commitment to floss daily, you cannot floss furiously in the days leading up to your appointment and expect to fool your dentist. The condition of your gums, despite your best efforts to conceal your inconsistency, will reveal the truth.

Here are some other principles:

  • Service
  • Fairness
  • Honesty
  • Quality
  • Excellence
  • Potential
  • Growth

Organizational purpose and principles have a lot in common. An organization’s raison d’être, its reason for being, provides guidance and direction—an unwavering beacon of light. And job purpose, a job role’s single highest priority in support of organizational purpose, similarly provides a North Star that transcends the job functions (duties and tasks) related to a specific job role. Like principles, purpose informs and directs employee behavior, which shapes the corporate culture.

As an illustration, consider a biotechnology company that focuses on combining science, technology, and clinical studies to reveal cancer at its beginnings. Suppose the organization’s purpose is to detect cancer early when it can be cured. For a clinical researcher, acquiring the knowledge and skills to conduct cancer research is table stakes to occupy this job role. Beyond the ability to reliably execute job functions, the job purpose—the single highest priority—of a clinical researcher at this company might be to save lives.

Now, ask yourself: Will a clinical researcher that views the higher purpose of her job role as to save lives rather than to conduct cancer research be inclined to:

  • Exhibit a passion for her work?
  • Be observant?
  • Ask questions?
  • Challenge the status quo?
  • Collaborate to create strong peer networks across disciplines?
  • Translate research data into meaningful outcomes for cancer patients?
  • Expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice?

While it’s critical for companies to articulate their purpose as well as the purpose of each job role in support of organizational purpose, it’s also necessary to identify a set of core values. These are the fundamental beliefs and highest priorities that guide employee behavior. Beyond listing core values, it’s imperative that companies interpret what the value means to the organization and label the actions, behaviors, and decision-making that support each core value in employees’ real world of work.

For instance, a company that identifies communication as a core value should take it a step further by interpreting what communication means to the company. For example:

“We value the communication that opens doors to new opportunities. Relentless professionalism, candor, and kindness guide our conversations with clients and colleagues.”

And once a value has been identified and interpreted, it’s necessary to label the actions, behaviors, and decision-making that bring the value to life in the day-to-day experiences of employees and customers. A company might actuate the core value of communication by specifying:

“This happens when we communicate openly, listen, clarify, deliberate, discuss, ask questions, challenge assumptions, seek first to understand, pursue contrary evidence, value divergent viewpoints, offer feedback, share insights, and address conflicts.”

Purpose-driven leaders recognize that principles, organizational purpose, job purpose, and core values serve as touchstones for employee actions, behavior, and decision-making. And they leverage these ideals to connect daily work activities to the higher purpose of the organization and job role, improve product and service quality, inspire greater employee engagement, and shape the corporate culture over time.

Order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin or purchase from select retailers, including Barnes & Noble.
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