Values vs. Priorities—Know the Difference



Knowing the difference between values and priorities is often the single greatest point of confusion for an organization. Values define us and bind us together, drive decisions in all of our interactions, and never change. Priorities, on the other hand, are tasks requiring action, must be managed daily, and shift frequently based on a given situation. But, even though priorities are the starting points for your day-to-day activities, your values should always guide your actions. Understand that people often do not properly differentiate values from priorities. You must ensure that broad-based understanding exists within your company, and that—while your priorities may shift—your values are never compromised.


Define who we are and bind us together

Are defined in every interaction—including those with coworkers, customers, and the public


Things that need to get done

Can and do change

Although priorities may vary from person to person and from day to day, on a winning team everyone has knowledge of—and is committed to—the same values.

For example, safety is a core value at my company. We priced a project for one of our largest customers to include transportation permits and police escorts due to the large and operationally challenging nature of the cargo. Our competitor did not include the same safeguards in their pricing. As a result, our bid—at face value—was more expensive and at a price disadvantage.

We were prepared to risk losing millions in business to keep our unwavering commitment to our values.  In the end, we stayed off the slippery slope which would no doubt have come from the resulting safety lapses certain to occur once we no longer remained focused on safety as our non-negotiable value.

In a notorious example last year, Volkswagen has admitted to deceiving regulators about its cars’ emissions by equipping 11 million cars with software that could be used to cheat on emissions tests. VW CEO Martin Winterkorn pledged to overtake GM and Toyota as the world’s largest automaker. Under his tenure, VW’s sales doubled and profits tripled. But at what price? Were these driving forces so critical that it created an internal belief structure that “we will meet these objectives at any cost?” If the single focus of a company is the bottom line without regard to values, it is easy to see where integrity took a back seat to profits. Perhaps you can get away with this for a period of time, but inevitably, it always catches up to you.

The VW scandal has been called an “investor’s nightmare.” Had VW not lied about emissions, the cost of producing an engine with proper emission specifications could have been prohibitively expensive. Because VW lied, its brand is seriously damaged and the company will likely pay tremendous fines.  This all relates to a culture in which values and priorities were clearly mixed, which is a dangerous failure in leadership. For a company to thrive, values must be consistently upheld. At VW, becoming the world’s #1 car maker and growing profits were noble goals, but they were priorities. Achieving a goal by compromising a value like integrity is a fruitless endeavor.

In sharp contrast, the entire Washington DC metro rail shut down completely for a full day in March 2016 for safety inspections. Even though he knew that the shutdown would anger and inconvenience many commuters, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld put safety above all else. Shutting down an entire metro system in one of America’s largest markets in the name of a core value is a tremendous example leadership courage.  In an article entitled “After shutdown, Metro riders ask what’s next,” The Washington Post’s Robert Thomson wrote: “Wiedefeld’s response to the cable problem may have signaled something bigger about his approach to the job. The extraordinary shutdown showed that he’s willing to do things differently.”  Aren’t these the leaders we seek to emulate – ones who are willing to do things better and differently, even if it means taking an unpopular stand?  At the core, we will find that these successful leaders are grounded in their values.

Without question, a company that blindly compromises core values any time a “hot” priority arises will destroy any ability to build a strong team aligned around a core set of nonnegotiable values. This creates an environment that is focused on fighting fires throughout the organization, rather than taking the time to empower employees based on a common culture of shared values and a vision designed to ensure that the right decisions are made the first time. It is our responsibility, as leaders, to ensure that our teams know the difference between values and priorities and to ensure that those values are never compromised.

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