Aspirational Values vs. Core Values: How A Simple Definition Can Change The Meaning And Trajectory Of Your Entire Company

The angle I want to explore with you is 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.



Core Values Are The Undeniable Pillars Upon Which You Or Your Company Have Been Successfully Built


Core values are the small number of values, or fundamental beliefs, usually somewhere between two and four, that describe behavioral traits that are inherent in your organization. This list of core values do not change overtime and already exist. 


That piece is really important. The set of core values have to already exist…


Because of the centrality of core values and the fact that they are not simply matters of convenience, but they are instead values for which your organization would be willing to suffer or take a hit. 


Aspirational Values Are The Characteristics That You WANT To Have But Do Not Currently Have 


You either wish you already had these values, or when you look forward into the future and think about your strategy, 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. They don’t have to be natural or inherent in how you are currently set up, work or operate as an organization.


A Real Life Example Of When A Company Confused Their Core Values And Aspirational Values


For example, I was recently 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 on regardless, focused on the path ahead. 


These two aspects were spoken about as core to the organization’s identity. As such, one would think when situations emerged relating to those core values, they would have been naturally demonstrated in the organization’s behavior, decisions and priorities. Yet, the opposite proved true.  


When critical milestones or opportunities to speak up and provide a platform for diversity emerged, the business fell silent, or was 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, however, 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. 


As a result, the impact behind losing these customers to this company was far worse because of the way these two areas had been presented as core values.  For those interacting with the organization, they experienced a complete mismatch between what the organization said and what they did. Because the disconnect was so jarring for customers, the company’s actions had only provoked a strong backlash. 


If this organization had never mentioned the idea about diversity being 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. 


Yet by claiming these ideals as core, when they were in fact aspirational at best, they undermined their integrity.  Naturally, when they undermined their integrity, the company clearly and plainly lost the invaluable trust of those with whom they interacted.


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 a really important thing to do. 


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. 


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 the following question: 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. 


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


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



Why You CANNOT Make The Mistake Of Blurring The Lines Between Core Values And Aspirational Values


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.


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?


Now, if you’re feeling brave, 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.


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 its 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.



How You Can Handle A Situation When You Mistake The Meaning Behind Aspirational Values And Core Values


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 up a conversation that allows you to reframe as aspirational something you misnamed as core, and begin to heal the damage you’ve done.  By doing this, you actually 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 up 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 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.  


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


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


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


This could be a great first step in demonstrating your leadership style, and how it’s ok that you not only don’t have all the answers. At the same time, though, it can also show that you are confident enough that you’re willing to admit when you get it wrong.