5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Identifying Team Values


What Happened: 

Someone on the leadership team suggested it would be a good idea to identify our values. The regular agenda for the leadership team meetings was already jam-packed, and no one had time for an extra meeting to do this work, so the task was assigned to a few volunteers to bring back to the team.

The Pitfall: 

Seeing values as separate from the real work. The leaders delegated and disengaged. By taking the time as a team to discuss what values they believed were critical to their future, they would have discovered how these values drive the very behaviors they need to accomplish the work. 

The sub-group members understood it was not a good idea to do the work in isolation, so in an effort to be inclusive, they sent out a survey to the everyone in the organization. Lack of conversation. It is only through involvement and dialogue that values becomes more than words on paper – where people clearly understand them and become commited to living them.
The survey instructions asked people to list their top five values. (The mission statement was not attached).

  • Most people listed their own personal values.
  • Some people chose values they felt were not currently being lived.
  • Some people assumed values like integrity were a “given” and did not list them.
  • Very few selected the values they believed were essential to drive the organization’s mission.
Failure to connect values with purpose or vision.  Organizational values need to be more than a reflection of the collective personal values of its members. Because values guide behavior and decision-making, it is important to choose the values that are needed to guide the organization into the future. Simply identifying the values that currently exist describes where you are, but these are not necessarily the values needed to help you get where you want to do. 
The sub-group had a lively and energizing meeting in which they reviewed the survey results and shared their own views on what values were important. They selected five values: honesty, relationships, teamwork, profitability, and passion. Failure to be descriptive. Words mean different things to different people. It is important to provide a clear definition and examples of what the behaviors look like for each of these words. 
At the next leadership team meeting, the sub-group presented their results. They were congratulated on their work and thanked for their efforts. The leaders believed the task had been accomplished, and there was no further discussion on the subject. The values were published and listed on the website. Today, nothing is different as a result of this activity; and if you ask leaders what the values are, they would need to look them up. Lack of accountability.  No processes were set up to monitor whether the values were being modeled by leaders or lived throughout the organization, to help resolve values conflicts, or to provide consequences for serious violations. Without accountability, the effort of identifying values becomes simply an activity to check off a list, rather than a guiding force in your organization.




39 comments to 5 Pitfalls to Avoid When Identifying Team Values

  • Dear Jesse,

    Great job! You wrote exactly what happens in the organizations nowadays. We see the important opportunity to the leadership to be a real sponsor in this process. It is fundamental that leaders are engaged and really put into practice, every single day.

    God bless you.

    • Hi Rodrigo,
      This is indeed a true story, and unfortunately happens all too often. I appreciate your comment that, “It is fundamental that leaders are engaged and really put into practice, every single day.” This is the key to turning a classic example of how leaders sabotage their own good intentions into a case study of success. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Jesse –
    I love this post because it’s exactly what happens all the time in business. Well-meaning efforts like ‘what happened’ waste time, deliver poor (or no) results, and leave people jaded and skeptical. I also really appreciate the clever way you’ve laid this out, labeling the various problems/pitfalls throughout the initiative. Thanks for this timely advice.

    • Well said, Julie – the end result, besides lack of results and wasted time, is that people end up feeling jaded and skeptical. I think that’s a big part of the reason so many people roll their eyes these days when vision and values are mentioned. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

  • Brian Pauley

    One major pitfall I see all the time is that leadership activities are delegated. Sub-teams of associates are created to do leadership for the leaders. Leaders must set an example by setting aside the time to do leadership. As John Maxwell says, “people do what people see.”. So if leadership is truly important, leaders have to spend time doing leadership. Far too often they hide behind excuses like “too busy” and “too many meetings.” In reality, they simply aren’t making leadership a priority.

    • Thanks for your strong statements, Brian. I agree this is a major pitfall. I think sometimes there is confusion on the role of leadership, so I would like to restate what Ken Blanchard and I say in our book Full Steam Ahead, “Leadership is about going somewhere. If you don’t know where you’re going, your leadership efforts don’t matter.” Vision and values are powerful tools to create a desirable future. It’s a good idea for leaders to involve others in the identification of vision and values, but it is a bad idea to relegate the work to a committee and not stay intimately involved in the process. I would like to add, this is true for leaders at all levels – teams and departments should be clear about their purpose, values and what it looks like when they are being lived.

  • I agree with Brian, Julie and Rodrigo. Leaders must walk the talk and be at the front when it comes to living values- being who you say you are. I believe there is a movement taking place in business (be it slow) that places values at the very top in terms of priorities & strategies. People just don’t want to buy from dishonest inauthentic companies. They are sharing their thoughts and feeling in social media spaces. On top of these negative feelings is a total lack of TRUST in businesses today. Their is a believability crisis in American Business. Your story is an example of the old way of communicating and leading.

  • This is such a helpful post, it reads like a modern parable/story and is so applicable to any organisation.

    Most people if you asked them would say Values are important, vital, key even. Yet where are they in most organisations? They are very much the poor second cousin of mission and vision.
    I wrote a bit about having values that mean something here

    • Glad you found this helpful, Steven.

      You raise an important point – saying values are important is not enough. It is difficult to expect people to live them when they haven’t even been articulated. Thanks for sharing your post on this subject. I agree that values are what guide us as we move toward our destination. You might enjoy The Key to Vision Statements That Work. You’ll see our views are quite aligned.

  • Great post Jesse. What scares me is as I was reading this, I thought to myself this is likely to be based on a true story and then the comments sound the alarm of how “this happens too often”, including you confirming the story is true. You would think with time this approach of outsourcing core functions would stop, particularly the mind-set of let’s define Vision, Mission and Values so we can tick those boxes of completion. Too often mangers like to have the boxes ticked so they look like they are doing the right thing rather than take ownership and lead with a purpose that has a following.

    • Thanks, Thabo. Not only is this story true, it is indeed quite common. And the rest of the story is that the leaders believe they are doing the right thing. They are proud that they have identified values where so many organizations have not. I think part of the problem is in the hectic lives of today’s organizations, leaders tend to get so focused on accomplishing tasks that they forget (or don’t understand) that how you accomplish it makes all the difference in the end.

  • Thanks for pointing our what has become almost a bureaucratic exercise in companies. My two cents worth:
    Values help people make the tough decisions when they are needed. Commodity-like values can’t do that.
    The leadership / parenting rule applies to values. Namely, it’s not what your children hear you saying, it’s what they see you doing. Staff have to see the leaders living the values.So, the values have to resonate.

    • Hi Alan, You make some excellent points. Not only do values help us make the tough decisions when they are needed, and they help us make them quickly during crisis. Consider the quick response of Johnson & Johnson during the tylenol tampering incident, where leaders used their values to make a quick decision to pull all stock (ultimately giving them even more credibility, good-will and financial success) and contrast that with the recent disaster on the Costa Concordia. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Always great to see you here.

  • Scott B

    I’m an 20-year HR Director and OD consultant, and still marvel at the incredible dis-association behaviors I repeatedly experience working with team who wish to engage in this exercise.

    Most recently I walked into the senior exec team’s boardroom to find their values etched into a glass tombstone, proudly displayed at the back of the room – where no one ever went. It felt like the ultimate metaphor – transparency can perhaps only occur at the end – when we reach the graveyard!

  • Jesse, great post. I work extensively with professionals on articulating their core values and purpose and it’s fascinating how difficult this can be for people. Most people have trouble putting a frame around their work and life so others can see it in a snapshot, which is what this work entails. The goal of the work is to be able to dimensionalize it quickly. To make it visible and therefore implementable. If others understand your values they can either be attracted to or repelled by them. Well articulated values can define culture, be used in the hiring process, and directed at marketing efforts so that a company is attracting the perfect clients. Folks don’t realize how important this task is. Thanks for bringing attention to the issue.

  • Tinna Hall

    “It is only through involvement and dialogue that values becomes more than words on paper – where people clearly understand them and become commited to living them.” This is so true. Also, it’s important to convert these common team values into constructive actions where follow-through on these actions lead to results.

  • Jay Steven Levin

    I usually don’t post comments to what I read. Mostly because I don’t finish what I read.

    Not because of any A.D.D. disorders. Rather because so much lacks relevance.

    And evidences poor construction. And fuzzy thinking. And sloppy editorial evangelism.

    Not this. Not you. It’s why I stayed. It’s why I’ll come back. It’s why I followed you on Tw.

    Your piece is clean. Concise. On point. Focused articulation. All without the white flour and sugar.

    Now, here’s my take.

    The top note issue here ironic. Here’s why. Values without a connecting value associated to it, becomes . . . valueless. Sound nonsensical? Its not really.

    In order for values to become transformational they have to be tethered to specific ROI across key areas of business impact.

    Think; sales volume, booking numbers, user experience, customer loyalty, competitor positioning, market share, margin growth, production costs, cost savings, waste elimination, time-to-market-launch improvement, quality control, end-user product feedback, shorter build and release cycles . . . to name just a few.

    Point. When value creation is delegated to just definition only rather than process integration and critical business implementation then – its as irresponsible as handing it off to a junior group to aggregate comments and etching it on a glass tombstone to be buried in the back of some office corner.

    What’s odd here, is not how stunningly well and simple you articulated the problem and the need. Or, the comments that support your well crafted perspective.

    What’s really odd is the irony that surfaces when values creation is not linked to real growth values such as gross revenues, earnings, production time, or waste.

    Sorry for being long winded. From a new fan!

    • I think you hit the nail on the head about the irony of disconnect between the values associated with behavior and those associated with growth. It’s like thinking you can drive a car without gasoline. Thanks for your kind comments about my post, Jay, and thank you for further illuminating it.

  • Jay Steven Levin

    Bingo!Bullseye! Matchpoint! Checkmate! Right on!

  • Hi Jesse,
    Thanks again for your post.
    I find it important and thought stimulating.
    I liked your “5 Tips to Embrace, in Order to Best Identify Team Values”.
    There is a difference IMHO, between 1. identifying already existing values in the team (past to present) and 2. creating the preferred ones for the team (future).
    The importance is in “the value” of managing the team by values as well as creating its team culture as its context.

  • Jon

    In talking about the content of the article (which I think is excellent), I’d merely be echoing lots of the other comments. But the other thing that hit me was the presentation, I love the two columns and the immediate clarity it brought. I might just need to use that technique myself.

    • Thank you, Jon. It was an experiment. I had originally written the story and analyzed it at the end. I was excited when I got the idea that I could put the two side-by-side. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Well written. Every time I hear about”values” being “posted”, I just shake my head. Values are the catalyst behind behaviors. Behaviors are what we see people do. So I always ask, “How would you know that value if you saw it?” “What would be a sign that a value is NOT lived?” Without descriptors and accountability, it’s just a another waste of time.

    Again, Jesse, thanks for bringing your light to the subject,

  • Jesse-

    What a terrific post!

    I agree that one of the most important parts of any teamwork or team building discussion / event is the application of the ideas that are generated. if nothing changes, then nothing changes! Accountability begins by measuring and publishing what is important to GET DONE…

    thanks for sharing!

  • Mark


    Great post. Do you have any resources that I can turn to as guide for doing a values audit so that I am not ending with the same results?



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