Values vs principles

← Back to Thoughts
Sunday, 28 Jun 2020

If you've ever worked near me, there's a good chance that you'd have heard me complain voice my opinion about "Company values" and the need for executives to pronounce their organisation as "Values-driven". You know the values I'm talking about—honesty, integrity, accountability, et cetera—the list of obvious traits that good people generally display regardless. (Don't get me started on the fact that employee performance appraisals are then based on these "values"—like you're assessing people based on arbitrary principles and not what they achieve for or deliver to the organisation.)

These "values" are actually principles! Principles and behaviours are great, but you can't expect employees to adopt principles or behave in ways that they are not already accustomed to. That's why you interview people—to assess whether they are already aligned to your organisational principles.

I'd suggest that actual values are what one seeks. You value gold, so you go mining for it. You're a business, so you value profit (or shareholder value, or whatever you want to call it). I'd much rather work for companies that are authentic about their actual values (this does not excuse them from abandoning all principles).

To support my view, here's a quote from Mark Zuckerberg regarding organisational values when interviewed by Reid Hoffman in an early episode of Reid's great podcast Masters of Scale. (It's found in the extended, uncut version of the original hour-long interview with the Facebook co-founder and CEO. You can pick it up from around the 24-minute mark in this Apple Podcasts link.)

So the value is actually 'move fast.' And my whole theory on values is that a lot of organizations have values which don't mean very much—because they're just table stakes, things like 'Be honest.' Of course you're going to be honest! That's not an option—you're not giving anything up to be honest, that's an automatic. That shouldn't be a defining principle of the company, that should be a principle of every company. So 'move fast' I think is interesting because you actually have to be willing to give something up to get it. And the question is, what are you willing to give up?

— Mark Zuckerberg

I think that quote emphasises my point quite nicely.