Avoiding 4 Traps of Core Values Discovery

Conducting a core values discovery exercise is a common first step in developing a family governance plan. Businesses will often perform a similar exercise to discover core values. Unfortunately, a values discovery exercise can become an ineffective cliché if it does not actually reflect or impact the behavior of the family. Even worse, poorly chosen and implemented core values can significantly harm the family’s culture and sense of trust.

This article identifies some common pitfalls of values discovery and possible remedies. To learn more about the activities and materials that we have developed, read more here.

At a Glance

  • Core values are principles, not a wealth creation strategy. 
  • Identifying core values is not a top-down process.
  • Find ways to be accountable.
  • Differentiate between core values and aspirational values.

Trap 1: Values are Fungible

A family’s core values are often words denoting positive emotional or behavioral traits. As such, they are broadly appealing and likely to reflect well on the family, its individual members, and the family enterprise. However, the trap here is to use the family’s values as fungible for something else, such as money, power, or status. While these things may often attend visible and positive values, the family must also confront the fact that genuinely held values might necessitate hard decisions that will, at least in the short run, negatively impact the family’s wealth, power, or status. Core values are the family’s deeply held principles, not a marketing strategy. 

Plato’s Republic wrestles with a related issue of whether the rewards of virtue are intrinsic or extrinsic. In this work, Socrates attempts to answer the question of why virtue should be pursued for its own sake. He argues against the idea that justice is practiced solely for the sake of its consequences, such as power or reputation. Instead, he posits that being just has intrinsic value and leads to a harmonious soul, which is essential to well-being.

To bring the issue back to the family, in what situations have the core values been tested, and what decisions were made? What circumstances in the future might test the core values that the family has chosen? A discussion around these questions will help identify whether the core values of the family are “fungible” or not.

Trap 2: One Family Member’s Core Values Dominate

In many wealthy families, one or two family members, perhaps a matriarch and patriarch, have an outsized influence on the dynamic of the family. This influence may be warranted, given the skills, hard work, and character that contributed to the family’s material success. However, the qualities and values that make a good wealth creator are not necessarily those needed to sustain wealth across generations. 

For example, entrepreneurs are often hard-driving individualists who beat the odds. In contrast second generation family members are working in a sibling consortium and need the values of collaboration, listening, and shared decision-making. What if only the wealth creator’s values are heard? The family is less likely to correctly identify the core values needed for a successful succession in the second and third generations. An inverse possible situation is that of aging or reticent first-generation family members whose wisdom is drowned out by a vocal and charismatic second-generation family members. In each example no one is “right,” but the trap is that only one voice gets heard. Often conflicting values between generations appear most strongly in conversations around legacy and philanthropy.  These can be hard conversations, but with the correct parameters and facilitation can yield fruitful compromise as the family transitions from one generation to the next.

A single values exercise might not capture the full spectrum of opinions within the family. People may hold back their true thoughts for various reasons. For example, they may want to avoid conflict, feel intimidated, or not have had enough time to reflect deeply on their values.

To address these challenges, consider the following strategies:

Facilitate the Activity

Use a neutral facilitator experienced in navigating family dynamics to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to speak and that all voices receive an ear. This can help mitigate the risk of one person dominating the conversation.

Conduct Multiple Sessions

Instead of a single values exercise, conduct multiple sessions over time. This approach allows family members to reflect on their discussions, develop their thoughts further, and feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives in future conversations.

Individual Written Contributions

Encourage family members to prepare a written reflection before the meeting to share their thoughts. This can help ensure that everyone’s views are considered from the outset.

Set the Tone

Establish norms for communication that create a safe and respectful environment for sharing. Encourage empathy and openness and make it clear that the views of each family member are important.

Engage Continuous Dialogue

Recognize that a family’s values and circumstances may evolve. Make the values exercise an ongoing process rather than a one-time event, allowing the family governance plan to adapt and grow with the family.

Trap 3: The Family Does not Hold Itself Accountable

Ensuring accountability to the values identified through a family governance exercise is crucial for translating these ideals into lived experiences and actions that reinforce the family’s legacy and cohesion over time. Technical governance solutions based on agreements, constitutions, and benchmarks have their place. However, they must be preceded by robust relationships among family members and a high level of trust. Here are some ideas for the family to intentionally put its core values into practice.

Family Traditions

First, the family can incorporate the discussion and reaffirmation of family values into family meetings, celebrations, and significant milestones. This regular reinforcement helps keep the values alive in the family’s collective memory and practices, ensuring they are a living part of the family’s culture. Once traditions establish a strong culture, there is a lot of inertia that guides behavior. The family can harness this to their advantage by developing and maintaining traditions around the family’s core values. 

Family Education

Second, the family passes on its values and knowledge through education. More important than trust agreements, incentives, and trustee selection is the character of the beneficiaries. Beneficiaries who match this character with good financial knowledge and skills can continue the family enterprise into the next generation. Formal and informal education initiatives with the family should therefore put the family’s core values front and center. From a very young age, it is important to encourage family members’ participation in value-aligned activities, helping them understand and act on these values.

Family Incentives

Third, incentives and rewards drive positive behavior. In the case of values, communal reinforcement and encouragement are much more effective than financial incentives. Older family members should acknowledge and celebrate when younger family members demonstrate commitment to the family’s values through their actions. Recognition can be as simple as verbal acknowledgment in family meetings or as formal as awards for contributions to the family’s philanthropic efforts.

Family Models

Lastly, actions speak louder than words. No education initiative is complete if family elders do not model core values for the rising gen. Family leaders and elders should embody the family’s values in their actions and decisions. By integrating these strategies into the fabric of their governance and daily lives, families can ensure that their values are not just words on a page but principles that guide their decisions, actions, and legacy for generations to come.

Trap 4: The Family Confuses Aspirational Values with Core Values

There is a difference between core values and aspirational values. The difference is what the family does compared to what it wants to do. In the business world, data shows that there is no correlation between a corporation’s stated values and its culture. In other words, a core values discovery exercise should observe values not choose them. This is not to say that there should not be an aspirational component to core values. No individual or family is entirely consistent or acts correctly in every situation. However, if the family does not embody its values (perhaps around 80% of the time, as judged by an internal survey of employees) then its core values are aspirational, but not embodied. 

Core values are the principles that a family genuinely lives by in their daily lives. These values are evident in the family’s consistent actions, decisions, and interactions both within the family and with the outside world. They are demonstrable, they guide decision-making, and they form the family’s identity.

Aspirational values, on the other hand, are the ideals that a family admires and strives to incorporate into their lives but may not consistently exhibit. These values represent goals for personal and collective growth. It is a mistake to put these in a “core values statement,” although they may feature on a growth or development plan.


A values discovery journey is crucial for families aiming to establish a strong foundation for governance and a meaningful legacy. Through this commitment to genuinely held core values, families can achieve authentic transformation and make a positive impact on the wider community.