Aspirational vs Practiced Values

A number of years ago, I lead a multinational project and team in Barcelona. One of the training directors of my organization recommended I lead the team through some exercises to help us better understand each other and our roles. One of the exercises was called “What you can expect from me.” It goes like this:

Each person makes a list of the things their fellow teammates can expect to get from them. Such as, “You can expect for me to be hesitant to share my opinion.” or “You can expect me to always have new ideas.”

The team shared their lists one-by-one. I decided to go last. I don’t know if it’s because I was trying too hard to be a ‘servant leader’ or because I thought I’d end things with a triumphant list that would inspire everyone. Regardless, it didn’t go as planned.

My team was silent after I read my list. One of my teammates, who also happens to be my wife, spoke up, “Uhm….the list you just read sounds more like what you think we want out of you as a team leader, not what you actually give to the team. Maybe we all misunderstood the exercise, but I thought we were supposed to list out what we actually do, not what we hope to do.”

I wanted my team to define me by my intentions to be a good leader. However, what was most beneficial to them (and the point of the exercise) was to have an accurate picture of who I really was as a leader.

This is when I learned the difference between aspirational and practiced values.

Aspirational Values

Aspirational values express who you hope to be. Visionary people do a good job identifying aspirational values because they see the future for what it could be. There is a time and place for talking about ‘what could be’. When writing values or defining culture, it’s more beneficial to start with reality and behave your way into something new; as opposed to saying something grand and suffering the consequences of not doing what you say you’ll do.

I worked for a company that had a slogan that we heard all the time…it was painted on the wall, written on our cards, said in meetings…you get the idea. However, our corporate practices and overall vision did not reinforce the message of the slogan. This value did not drive decisions, nor was it used to evaluate success. It sounded great but was not practiced. It was only a matter of time before the slogan became a joke. The more it was used, the more it revealed the ‘organizational hypocrisy’ in what we did.

It’s great to be aspirational when setting measurable goals, but it’s often counterproductive to use ‘what you hope to be’ as the definition of reality.

Practiced Values

Practiced values are the sum total of the habits and actions you practice. Practiced values are where a healthy culture is won or lost. If you have a healthy culture, it’s because your practiced values are healthy. If your culture is poor (high turnover, low morale, low commitment, confusion over roles), it’s most likely because your practiced values are unclear or have a lack of understanding their impact.

Working to identify and articulate your practiced values has far-reaching benefits:

  • Gives a language to why you do what you do
  • Helps new employees name what they are experiencing
  • Provides a decision making rubric for your team
  • Sets a tone of self-awareness
  • Creates a learning posture among leaders

I believe that no matter how great your aspirational values may be, they will never be as powerful or beneficial as an accurate expression and ownership of your practiced values.

Here’s an example of how the same value can hurt or help a team depending on whether or not it is aspirational or practiced:

Value: We value honest and open feedback. 

How this can go wrong as an aspirational value: Your team hears this value but knows that leaders don’t truly care or want to hear their opinions. Teammates see the leaders as self-deceived, closed off, and untouchable. Teammates begin to talk to one another about issues they see but feel a lack of influence to create the changes they believe are necessary. The more they hear that feedback is welcomed, but not practiced, the more they lose their interest in the company’s success.

How this can go right as a practiced value: Your team sees leaders actively solicit feedback and don’t fear for their jobs when expressing their opinions. When an employee sees something wrong in a system or feels misunderstood they are confident they will be heard and that change will happen if necessary. The open system of communication creates small changes which improve the company over time. The team feels empowered and valued, which increases loyalty and buy-in.

Back to my team in Barcelona…I ended up going back off on my own and coming up with a new list. This entire experience taught me that it’s easier to live into who I really am, rather than strive to become someone I believe others want me to be. In the end, the best thing we as people, leaders, and companies can give to the world is our true selves.


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