“If the ‘Know Thyself’ of the oracle were an easy thing, it would not be held to be a divine injunction.” — Plutarch

Effectively using values to care for the context and provide focus to a team or organization has two major steps: 1) clarifying and prioritizing shared values; 2) living and behaving according to those aspirations. Both can be very difficult leadership acts.

Here are some ways to clarifying and prioritizing shared values:

  • If your management team hasn’t developed an explicit set of core values, this is the place to start. Here’s what you’re after:
  • Three to four words or short phrases (five words or less) that you can use as “verbal pegs” to cluster or summarize many of the related values at the top of your values hierarchy.
  • Words or short phrases that are easy to understand and meaningful to your team and organization.
  • Broad understanding and ownership of the core values by everyone on your team or in your organization.

Your team’s shared values should represent a blend of those principles from your past that you want to preserve and the beliefs that your team will need to share as you look to your preferred future. Looking at the past respects and builds on your organization’s heritage, successes, and strengths. It helps to turn resistance to change into confidence and energy for facing the future. To look at future values, you’re examining the underside of your team or organization’s vision. To make the picture of your preferred future a reality calls for a different set of priorities about what’s really important.

Debating and developing your core values should follow the development of your shared vision. Values clarification can be a painful process. But it doesn’t have to be long and drawn out. If you have a skilled facilitator lead you, it’s common to have a rough version of your team’s shared values words or short phrases within a few hours. That’s because shared values aren’t created they’re uncovered or articulated.

  • Once your team has developed your core values, we’ve found the following exercise is a useful way to further debate, try them on for size, and start management teams into the most important part of values — living them. You can break into three groups or do this as a large group brainstorming and discussion exercise.

    Here’s the exercise using three groups (for the large group discussion, do these in the same way and order): 1) One group brainstorms a list of ways to visibly signal each value to the rest of the organization. These must be specific such as “meet with our distributors to get their ideas and feedback.” Not motherhood generalities like “communicate better.” 2) Another group discusses ways that the team and/or individuals on the team, often inadvertently violate each value. 3) The last group looks at ways the team and individuals on it can get feedback from others in the organization on how well they are living the values.

    Now everyone gets back together to hear and discuss each group’s perspectives. Action plans and next steps conclude the process.

  • Unless you’re trying to build an old-fashioned command and control organization culture, you need wide debate, discussion, and ownership of a set of shared core values. This consensus building process can take a fair bit of time and energy. It’s usually best combined with discussions of the organization’s vision, and an outline of, or invitation to input to, the organization improvement plans and process. Some organizations have started with blank sheets of paper and invited the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people throughout their organization to articulate the organization’s core values.

As you try to articulate your espoused or aspired values, don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of “we’re not living this way now so it can’t be a value.” Like visioning, you’re trying to describe where you want to be. Once you know what you want to become, then you can work on making these lived values.