At our company, we have always aspired to have very few rules. Instead, we prefer to emphasize and reinforce our company’s core values. We believe these are key guideposts that can help team members make more thoughtful, sound decisions.

Years ago, while reading Adam Grant’s book, Originals, I learned about a study done by two sociologists who studied non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust (rescuers) with a group of neighbors who lived in the same town but who did nothing (non-rescuers).

The study revealed that what ultimately differentiated the rescuers from the non-rescuers was how their parents disciplined bad behavior and praised good behavior.

When the rescuers were asked to recall their childhoods and the discipline they received, researchers discovered that the word they most used was “explained.” The focus of their parents was on the Why behind their disciplinary action and the moral lesson or value to be learned, rather than on the discipline itself.

This practice conveyed the values their parents wanted to share while also encouraging critical thinking and reasoning. Grant notes that by explaining moral principles, the parents of those in the rescuer group had instilled in their children the importance of complying voluntarily with rules that align with important values and to question rules that don’t.

The rescuers were almost three times more likely to reference moral values that applied to all people, emphasizing that their parents taught them to respect all human beings.

Another key to creating these moral standards that researchers found is praising behavior or character over the action itself. For example, in one study, children who were asked to “be helpers” instead of “to help” were more likely to clean up toys when asked. Similarly, adults who were asked “Please don’t be a cheater,” cheated 50 percent less than those that were asked “Please don’t cheat.”

The same researcher suggests that we replace “Don’t Drink and Drive,” with “Don’t Be a Drunk Driver.”

It turns out that values are far more effective than rules at eliciting the outcomes and behaviors that we want. In either a family or an organization, it is virtually impossible to cover all possible rules or monitor the adherence to them. Doing so would create a lengthy process manual or a draconian set of guidelines.

I’ve observed that highly successful individuals, families and companies almost always have carefully defined core values. These aren’t token principles that look good on an office wall or marketing pamphlet. Instead, these values represent the DNA of the person or group, and inform their crucial decisions.

The basis of high-achievement, fulfillment and alignment comes from knowledge of core values. I spent several months developing my personal list, and it has become a crucial part of our leadership training at our company. Now, I have also created a course that helps people do this for themselves, walking learners through a detailed exercise to create and refine their list core values. 

Core values can be applied to most important situations and decisions in life, far more than any set of rules could. Once you know your core values, you’ll make better decisions with your time and energy, and you’ll align your life to what matters most.

The individuals who acted bravely to save would-be victims of the Holocaust were never explicitly told to do that. It was following the values that were instilled and strengthened throughout their lives that brought them to a logical, courageous decision.

To start discovering your core values today, check out my new course, Discovering and Developing Core Values. The actual lessons can be completed in an hour, but they will inspire much more work and reflection over the next several months. It’s an investment of time and energy you won’t regret.