Undermining Your Integrity By Misnaming Your Core Values

My upbringing wove together Judeo-Christian thought and Ancient Greek philosophy in ways that heavily shaped how I look at the world and think about the role values play. The journey of understanding your values and the role they play in your life is a lifelong journey if you choose to embark on it in a genuine way.


In the last 15 years I have been influenced by the work of Patrick Lencioni and used his approach to values in my work with hundreds of business leaders and entrepreneurs around the world.


The angle I want to explore with you today is dipping our toe in the water to begin to see when we, or others, are naming things as core values that are in fact aspirational.


The reason this is so important. Is that without differentiating between core values and aspirational values. Our good intentions around seeking to live in alignment with our values and communicate those to our team, customers, and all we engage with can end up backfiring.


Let me give you an example. Recently I was involved with a group who were very vocal about diversity being a core value and central driver of importance for them as an organization. They spoke about it openly and often at first and made initial moves to attempt to demonstrate the important position it would play in the organization. They also spoke at length about another deeply held value, the way in which leaders and entrepreneurs needed to have the strength of character to cope with criticism and discern when to take that criticism and feedback on board, and when to continue regardless, focused on the path ahead.


These two aspects were spoken about as core to who the organization was. Yet, overtime when situations emerged where if those things were in fact core they would have been naturally demonstrated in the behavior, decisions, and priorities of the organization, the opposite proved true.


Where critical milestones or opportunities to speak up and provide a platform for diversity emerged. They were silent, or at least slow to act.


As the team grew, the diversity did not.


When people brought the topic up, they were received with hostility and defensiveness.


Interestingly, the same played out in relation to the commentary around leaders and entrepreneurs needing to engage with feedback. While on a surface level many opportunities were provided for surveys and feedback. When real issues were raised, and customers offered to engage in conversations to unpack these issues further. They were met again with hostility, defensiveness and a complete inability or unwillingness to engage in a conversation.


The impact and the customers they lost as a result were far worse because of the way these two areas had been presented as core, meaning that the experience of such a disconnect was jarring for customers and provoked a strong backlash.


For those interacting with the organization they experienced a complete mismatch between what the organization said and what they did.


If they had never mentioned diversity was so central and important to them, they may have received some feedback or commentary on how they could improve when they failed to prioritize this but would not have been judged as harshly.


If they had not been so vocal about the importance of learning to take feedback and criticism. Then they would not have been held to such a high standard when they failed to listen and engage with feedback they did not want to hear.


And yet by claiming these things as core, when they were in fact aspirational at best, they undermined their integrity and therefore, the trust of those that interacted with them.


I have seen this over, and over again, in my dealings with organizations and leaders over the last two decades. All of us will have people or organizations that come to mind, who talk a big game but don’t deliver.


Depending on the area, the consequences and the seriousness can vary. But either way, taking the time to not make a claim, or position something either publicly or within your organization, as a core value or of central importance if it in fact is not yet reflected in the way you behave and make decisions is really important.

Core Vs Aspirational Values

To help you feel equipped to put this more powerful approach into practice in your own life I’m going to briefly give you an overview of the way Patrick Lencioni talks about core values, and aspirational values.

Core Values

Core values are the small number of values, usually somewhere between two and four, that describe behavioral traits that are inherent in your organization. These are things that do not change overtime and already exist.

That piece is really important. They have to already exist…

Because of the centrality of core values and the fact that they are not simply matters of convenience but are instead things that you as an organization would be willing to suffer or take a hit for. Lencioni says that they should be used to guide every aspect of an organization. From hiring and firing, to strategy and performance management.


There is a great sense check that he uses around core values which is that you ask yourself: Can you very quickly come up with examples where you have a tendency to take these things too far?


If you can’t think of multiple examples easily then it is unlikely that the area you have named is a core value.

My Tendency To Take It Too Far...

You may have heard me speak about this before in relation to some of the values from my family growing up, like independence or work ethic.


If you were to ask me, or my husband, for examples of me taking those things too far, unfortunately, the list would be long and the examples would come quite easily.


  • I can be self-contained in a way that is difficult for others  when it comes to my independence going too far.


  • I can be obsessive, and exhausting, for myself and others, when it comes to work ethic, having a tendency to go too far.


So, use that sense check when you look at what you’ve articulated for yourself, or your organization, related to core values and see whether in fact the things you’ve stated are already deeply present and embedded in how you operate.

Are they things that you would not let go of easily and where you can see your tendency to sometimes take those things too far?

Aspirational Values

Now shifting gears, aspirational values, on the other hand are the characteristics that you want to have.


You either wish you already had them, or when you look forward into the future and think about your strategy or where you want to go as either an individual or an organization, you know that these are the values that would need to be present in order for you to succeed in the future.


They are the qualities that you’re aspiring to adopt so they do not have to be present already, be natural or inherent in how you are currently set up, work or operate as an organization.

It is critical not to name these as core values. Because when you do, and someone hears you referring to them as a core value but then does not see them in how you behave, you undermine your trustworthiness and integrity in the eyes of that person.

Reflective Exercise

That’s a lot to process and your mind may be running off in all kinds of directions so let’s do an exercise to bring your thoughts to ground.


This is important because I don’t want you to walk away from this and say “oh that was interesting” but then go on with your day as if nothing has changed.


I want this to soak in and begin to show up in how you operate in the world. How you become more intentional and thoughtful about the power of your words and how you present things and the way that comes back to you in often unintended ways that can be completely at odds with what you had hoped to occur.


So, find a quiet spot and centre yourself for a moment as we do this exercise. I want you to slow down for just a moment and put your other thoughts, worries and responsibilities on ice, they will be faithfully waiting for you when you re-emerge, I promise!


Take some deep breaths and connect in with your body and how you’re feeling in this current moment.


If you stop for a moment, can you think of times where an organization you’ve worked with or for has named something as a core value that was at odds with how they behaved and made decisions?


  • How did that make you feel about them?


Just sit with that for a little while. Think through what was said or done. How you felt and what you did in response.


  • Did it change the way you looked at the organization?


  • Did it make you skeptical when they claimed something was important later?


  • Did you talk to other people about the disconnect between what the organization said and did?

Make It Personal

Now, if you’re feeling brave, look at yourself or your organization.


Are there areas where you have been vocal or public about things that you believe in, prioritize or hold as core values that are probably more reflective of aspirational values than core?


This may feel a little uncomfortable and require you to squirm in your seat for a moment and resist the urge to move on quickly.


This doesn’t just have to be in a work context are there areas where you have been vocal or public about things that you believe in, prioritize or hold as core values that if I looked at your behavior would seem at odds?

Putting It Into Practice

If you have areas like that here’s an exercise using an example of what you could do with your team or customers to begin to reset where you got off on the wrong foot.


This example is framed around an organization that has claimed that innovation was a core value but it’s employees and customers are feeling unsettled because they have not only not experienced that as true but have felt the exact opposite to be true in how the organization operates.


Your example will be different but see if this is helpful:

Be open and honest with them and say something like “I have realized that I positioned innovation as a core value of our organization, and you may have found that a little confusing given how we currently operate and our history as quite a conservative and risk averse company.


I wanted to talk to you about why I think innovation is so important but also to reframe it, not as a core value but as an aspirational value. Because while we know that it is going to be critical for us to step into a more innovative culture that takes risks and tries new things, we are far from innovative at this particular moment in time.”

The way I have framed that is simply a way of opening a conversation that allows you to reframe as aspirational something you misnamed as core and begin to heal the damage you have done and build more integrity and trust because you have been honest and vulnerable in the process and demonstrated you are open to grow and learn.


After you have opened the conversation, unpack your reasons for wanting to be innovative, why it’s important, what you think it will do for you as an organization and for your customers as they interact and are served by you.


Lay out for your team and customers some of the concrete steps you are taking to embed a more innovative culture and ask them for feedback as you go on this journey. 

An honest articulation of an aspirational goal is far more inspiring than a wishful thinking naming of core values that are completely at odds with how you or your organization currently operate. 

Deeper Reflection

Before we wrap up and you get swept back up into your day, I’d love for you to take a few moments now to just really sit with the personal aspects of this topic and make sure you have drawn out the ways they are playing out in your life.


Whether in a work context, or a personal one, where are you currently claiming something as core that your behavior, priorities, and decision making would demonstrate is aspirational at best?


  • Who would you need to talk to to rectify that situation and how would you go setting that conversation up?


  • Is it a casual conversation, a team meeting, an email, a blog, or podcast episode?


Whatever it is for you this could be a great first step in you demonstrating in your leadership style that you not only don’t have all the answers but that you are confident enough in yourself that you’re willing to admit when you get it wrong.


Part of my hope for you as we go on this journey together is that you find regular moments of insight into yourself that create opportunities for you to step more fully into both knowing yourself and living in alignment with that.


Deeply understanding your values takes time, and I’d love to do more of that work with you so please feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in digging in more.


Regardless of whether you choose to work with me formally, or simply keep reading my content or listening to my podcast, please know that even the reflection you’ve done today and the actions you take on the back of this will move you in the direction you’re wanting to go.


If you do these exercises, reflect, and then act I promise you that you will be trending in the direction of the desired outcome of a more aligned and fulfilling life that is uniquely yours.


As you do this, remember there is no one right answer. It is about the exploration of what resonates for you, unearthing and bringing into the light the fullness of your brilliance and unique genius.


In going deeper on your journey towards a Both/And worldview I hope that you find yourself in new ways that allow you to flourish.