When you agree on your team values, you increase trust and create a language for more effectively working together.
Values are deeply held beliefs about what is right and good and evoke standards that you care deeply about. They drive your behaviors and decisions.
Most often your values influence your behavior unconsciously. High performance teams are clear about their values and consciously make decisions based on them.
If your organization has published values, it is still helpful to identify team values that are specific to the needs and purpose of your team. It’s okay if they are not the same, as long as they are aligned and don’t conflict.
If your organization has not articulated values, it is even more important to identify team values.
The Conversation Matters.
To be effective, the team leader cannot identify team values and simply announce or publish them.
It is only through conversation that your team will get clear about what the values mean and how they can be applied to improve team effectiveness.
A value like “shared responsibility” can mean different things to different people. To one person it might mean picking up the ball when someone drops it. To another person it might mean punctuality in meeting deadlines that impact others.
The best way to explain your values is to include some examples of what the value looks like in action.
For example, one of our Seapoint Center values is collaboration. But that’s only a word. A definition could be helpful, but we still might have different ideas about what the day-to-day behaviors are. During a team discussion, we each shared our thoughts on what collaboration looks like in action. We then agreed on these four examples:
• Engage through bringing our expertise and utilizing the expertise of others.
• Seek new ideas and approaches.
• Assume responsibility to communicate in ways that can be heard and understood.
• Embrace diversity and actively seek to understand all perspectives.
During our discussion, we had some very helpful conversations about what was currently working well and what needed to change – a reminder that the conversation matters.
You Have to Choose.
Choose only the top 3-5 values that are most important to supporting your team’s purpose. Don’t create a laundry list.
Most people can only remember up to five values. If you want to keep your team values in mind on a daily basis, you need to be able to remember them.
If you are a sitcom writing team, “fun” might be on your list. If your team is the accounting department, “accuracy” might be on your list. People in the accounting department can still have fun, in fact they should, but it doesn’t need to be on the list because it isn’t a key driver for successfully fulfilling the mission.
Although it’s tempting to combine values so you can get more on the list, the discipline of identifying the top values will help your team get focused and more clear about the non-negotiables.
Don’t Frame and Forget Them.
Once your values are agreed upon and clearly articulated, you have a language. It makes it easier to talk about things people are doing that feel off-base. And while you don’t want to have “values police,” it is helpful to have regular conversations about “how are we doing?”
Most importantly, don’t ignore a values breach. If a core value has been violated, address it immediately or trust will fly out the window, and your espoused values will become meaningless.
Our organization (fire department) has a set of Values and Expectations, which has turned out to be a long list. We are in the process of reviewing them and this post is very valuable and timely. One thing we found when we developed the Values and Expectations (a long, involved and global conversation) was that the younger employees tended to disdain the process (it took 2 hours to get them to talk about this), while the older employees embraced it. The former thought it was “just another stick to beat us over the head,” which indicated to me that we had some trust issues.
Thanks for the timely post!
Hi Dave, Glad to hear this post will be helpful as you review and revise your values. I wonder if the younger employees believe their values are different from the older ones. I have a few of thoughts to consider. You might want to start with individuals identifying their top 5 personal values and sharing them. Is there really a difference in values between the generations or are people more unified than they realized? If there are differences, then it is worth spending time to really understand them – exactly what they mean and why they are important. Are there values you can support even though they’re not top of your list? (this is a question for everyone, but especially for the older generation who tend to hold the power positions). If everyone has an opportunity to participate in the discussion, they become the team values, not the leader’s values.
One more thought is you might want to include a discussion about how the values are being lived and as part of the discussion, having each person share what they would appreciate from others that would indicate the values are being lived on a daily basis. Keep the discussion focused on team functioning, not fingerpointing, and it might reveal some ideas that would improve the way you work together.
Best brief, complete explanation, illustrations & context of team values I’ve ever read.
Thank you, Lowell
Great post Jesse.
It is a wonderful supplement to your Full Steam Ahead book on values and vision. (I still plan on re-reading it to put some points into practice! : )
I really love how you highlight that our values are more then just words to frame. More importantly, that those words mean different things to different people.
My big value of exploration for over a year now has revolved around ‘truth, honesty, integrity’ and learning that what ‘we think’ is a black and white issue, turns out not to be so black and white after all!
And we can spend our whole lives ‘thinking’ we understand values and only skimming the surface of what they really mean to us and those around us.
So a value on honesty is more then just telling the truth. It turns into what exactly IS the truth, how do/should we tell the truth? (in terms of brutal truth vs speaking truth in love even if firmly) When does withholding information become a lie and harmful? etc.
As surprising as it may be, we’re all not on the same page even when it comes to something as seemingly obvious as honesty. (This value merely being an example since it happens to be one of my top values personally! : )
Thanks, Samantha, for your helpful and lovely illumination what a real exploration of a value can look like, and also for pointing out that without that exploration, we are missing the opportunity for a much deeper understanding and connection with ourselves and those we care about.
I enjoyed & appreciated this article, Jesse! My team at IUP just identified our five core values and defined them in May. We intend to use them as our guiding principles while sharing them with our stakeholders, hoping that these values are reflected in the work we do.
That’s great to hear, Tammy. The best test of whether you’re really living your values is to ask your stakeholders.
I have used a similar process with my team. We choose one word to represent a value, for example: Respect. Then we described the value in a single sentence: Every team member and every client is valued and treated with the greatest respect and care. Finally, we choose the behaviors that would reflect the value in action:
We treat others just as we ourselves would want to be treated
We treat others with kindness and compassion
We listen and seek to understand
Our words will always convey respect
Thanks for sharing your process.
Hi Dan, Thanks so much for your helpful example of how your team describes “respect” and for affirming the process works.
As I’m sure you experienced, the discussion around choosing the descriptors is what is most illuminating and unifying for the team. It reminds me how important it is to go through the process of identifying the values and the descriptors even if in the end you come up with the exact same words as other teams.
Important post – minimalist in words and abundant in its contribution.
For those who the word “values” isn’t on their daily vocabulary, it might be harder to identify them (even with a provided clear definition).
One possibility might be to refer the team members to the preferred team behaviors and then, to extricate the values from the behaviors.
Finally, it might be useful to remember that any “Team values” conversation includes interpersonal conversations between personal values of the team members.
Excellent suggestions, Yoram. It’s good to have options for how to elicit team values so if one way isn’t working you can try a different approach. And I agree that the conversation between team members about what their personal values mean, what they look like in action, and why they care about them makes it “real” and strengthens the foundation of the team by deepening trust, understanding and the sense of authentic relationship. Thanks for adding to the conversation.
“Don’t ignore values breach”. This was, to me, the most important part of your great article. One can go through all the conversation and the descriptions but if there is no accountability, the effort is wasted. We have all seen organizations that espouse a set of values but then tolerate behavior that is quite the opposite. It is demoralizing and counter-productive.
Recommendation: establish a process whereby team members agree just what they will say and do should a member not be living up to the stated values. Perhaps more conversation is needed to define what values in action look like.
In any event–thanks, Jesse. Once again.
Very helpful, Eileen. Sometimes an action that looks like a values breach really is an issue of perception. The first step is conversation about the behavior and the intention. It helps for the team to have agreements on the process for discussing perceived values breach. We often think it’s the role of the team leader to call out a values breach, but it’s much more powerful and effective when the team is able to address issues as a team. The discussion helps the team develop a deeper and shared understanding of what the values mean. However, a very clear, outrageous, out-of-bounds values breach needs to be addressed immediately by the team leader and the organization or the entire exercise of identifying values will be rendered meaningless.
As always, thanks for sharing your wisdom and deepening the conversation.
Piggy-backing on this important issue, Eileen, I’ve used a process around it which may be useful to others. All agree to be accountable and do their best to work on honoring the values. I use the term “work on” so no one feels they’ve failed by not achieving perfection. The agreement among all the players is to allow anyone to point out when they feel a person is not demonstrating a value. The pointer-outer must be respectful, of course.
One gimmick we’ve used successfully is to flash a yellow 3×5-inch card, as in a soccer game (or football, if that is the name in your country). The person who is called out may ask why they were called out, and the pointer-outer states the value not being observed, with little explanation. The one called out is only permitted to say, “thank you,” thereby acknowledging they received the message. No point in discussing or arguing whether or not that violation happened, or the reason for it. What is most useful is that awareness of the value is made present to everyone around.
Thanks, Jesse. We’ll have to make one of our Key Performance Indicators a perceptions survey of our stakeholders with regard to our values.
Building on Lowell’s approach, with the 31Practices approach we have found that a positive reinforcement of behavior works very well. We encourage recognition of the 31Practices behaviors to be captured and the best examples communicated through the organisation. Some organisations also make this a part of their performance review process.
“Most importantly, don’t ignore a values breach”… If you don’t have the courage for a confrontation to deal with a value breach, it does destroy the work and trust is lost indeed. I think that in the beginning, you will have breach but address it and keep the integrity of it and people soon correct to get to the intended path. Let it slide, and it persists and could leave the team worse of than if they had not done the exercise at all. The “values police” would then not necessarily be a bad thing if they keep to a purpose of “serve and protect”
Thanks for the post Jesse
Your comments remind me that it’s a slippery slope. The first breach might look too small to make a big deal out of. But people notice what’s NOT being said as much as what is being said. The next breach is a little bigger… and then bigger.. and at some point you’re dealing with clearly out of bounds behavior. I think you can avoid needing the “values police” if you make it ok to discuss values as part of how you work. For example, when making a tough decision, ask, “how do our values guide us here?”
The other way to make it ok to identify those small breaches is to do it with a light touch instead of heavy handed. Early on, once the values have been agreed upon, make a statement like “there are bound to be small values breaches, especially in the beginning, because we’re still learning what they look like. We need to make it OK to talk about actions that we have a concern about to help us better understand what they mean.”
Thanks for adding to the conversation, Thabo.
Jesse, my experience in working with values based behavior supports the position you have outlined. If open conversation is encouraged and the positive behavior is recognised, then people start to understand what is required and follow…..or start to feel uncomfortable/isolated and often leave.
Thanks, Alan. Appreciate your point that when the values are clear, understood and lived, then people are able and more likely to self-select.