3 Ways to Bring Your Organization’s Values to Life

By: Josh

What are your organization’s defined values? Do you know them?

What about your people, do they know your organization’s values?

More importantly, what do these values do? How do they guide the day-to-day attitudes and behaviors of individuals and the collective group?

I remember spending time with a team a while ago to help them establish some systems to make leader development more routine in how they conduct internal business. While walking around their workspace for the first time, a poster caught my attention listing out the organization’s four core values. It was a great looking poster with inspiring values. So, I asked one of the employees about the words on the poster.

Me: “Hey, I like this poster and these values seem thoughtful. When did you all create these?”

Employee, seeming like he’s noticing the poster for the first time: “Oh, um, I’m not sure really. I guess they’ve always been there.”

Me: “Do you know how these were developed?”

Employee: “I do not, sorry.”

Me: “That’s ok. What do these values mean to your team? How do you all live these out?”

Employee: “Again, I’m not really sure. I’ve never paid attention to this poster or these words before to be honest.”

The Value in Values

Our organization’s values communicate who we are, what we stand for, and what we accept…and do not accept.

When it comes to a group’s what, why, and how, values help define the how. How do we do business and treat people? What guides our behavior inside and beyond our organization? How do we operate, behave, and interact on a day-to-day basis? What are our core beliefs?

Values guide employees’ actions and attitudes, nurtured through an understanding and framework shared by all members. In short, values keep people aligned.

There are a myriad of ways to cultivate these values in our organization. While important, this article does not look at how to form values, but rather, explores what to do with your values once established. How do we make the values real? In what ways can we make them mean something and tangibly influence how we do business? How do we keep our values from simply living on a poster in the office?

3 Ways to Operationalize Your Values

Leaders must make values matter. Leaders are the ones that bring our values to life. Three simple ways we can do that are infusing values in our feedback and assessments, in how we celebrate people and results, and what we hold people accountable to. Let’s briefly dig into each one.

Feedback and Assessments

What metric(s) do we use to assess our people and give feedback? Are there clearly established and communicated expectations or guidance to base our assessment on to prevent feedback from being subjective conjecture? While a person’s job description and responsibilities do provide that foundation, our values can too. We can give feedback and assess our people on how well they live out our values, how aligned they are to our collective standards.

I’ve leveraged an anonymous peer evaluation with my team, where members give one another feedback on two topics: how well they lived out our team’s values and how well they demonstrated our organization’s expectations of leaders (known as our leader competencies and attributes). We structured the questions to frame the values as behaviors, such as, “this person is a leader of high integrity” or “to what degree does this person treat everyone with dignity and respect?”

Our values form a bedrock of expected behaviors within the organization. Feedback and assessment mechanisms are powerful ways to ensure alignment to those standards, helping people to recognize when their behavior deviates from them.

Celebration

A team I used to serve with had a ritual where the first Wednesday of the month was team lunch. All 130 members of the “Bulldog Team” would gather to do two things: break bread together and celebrate one another. During lunch, we announced upcoming birthdays for the month, recognized some noteworthy performances over the last month, and then dedicated most of the lunch to our “Best of the Bulldogs” celebration. During this part of the lunch, everyone had the opportunity to stand up and recognize a teammate for living out one of our five team values. The recognition identified the person being celebrated, identified the value they went above and beyond to demonstrate, and then shared the specific story of what they did. The subject of each celebration received a coveted “Best of the Bulldogs” sticker, which served as a cultural artifact of commitment, excellence, and care.

This practice, while low resource and effort, generated a ton of energy and buy-in to our values. It helped to solidify our shared team identity. It made it even more impactful when it came from one peer to another, rather than strictly from a leader to a subordinate.

This example is also just one way to celebrate values in action. Other ways can include giving values-based awards in the team or writing letters of congratulations or gratitude. The letters can use the values as specific language for why that person is being celebrated. There are plenty of options. The intentionality of tying celebration to our defined values in action is what matters most.

Accountability

Let’s say our team has an espoused value of respect, but also has an employee who is a bully in the office every day. He is a high performer and gets a lot of great results for the business. But he is self-important, demeaning toward his colleagues, and makes every discussion about his own ideas or himself. What do we do? If we tolerate his behavior because of the results he gets, then respect really isn’t a true value of ours. By ignoring and implicitly accepting our bully’s behavior, we communicate to the team that we value results over behavior and that respect is really a hobby when convenient instead of a hardline standard of behavior.

Our values not only define our expected standards and behaviors, but also serve as the plumbline against which we should hold our people accountable. If, after receiving feedback on his undesirable behavior, the bully fails to adjust his actions, our value of respect should guide elevated consequences, even to the level of removing him from the team if needed.

When we take administrative or terminating actions against our people who fail to align to our organizational standards, our values should inform the purpose of the action – “because you have failed to work, lead, and collaborate in line with who our organization is and what we believe, we are taking the following actions.” Be clear on what value(s) they are violating, providing specific examples of that behavior, and attempts taken to rectify it up to this point.

If we must remove people from our organization for values violations, we should appropriately communicate that to the rest of the team. This keeps the intent for the action clear, serves to deflate rumors, and shows everyone that we take our values and standards seriously.

Putting It Together

Together, these three methods send a strong message to the organization – these values matter, these values define us, and these values will always direct how we think and act. In the end, these approaches help bring alignment among your people. When we incorporate these methods, before long, we will see underlying assumptions across the organization that say, “this is always who we’ve been and how we’ve done business.”

As you consider these methods, we encourage you to ask some of the following questions to help bring your organizational values into action:

What feedback or assessment tool already exists in your organization that you can simply and explicitly add your values to?

Is there a ritual that you can add to your team’s battle rhythm that occurs every week or month to celebrate people living out your values?

How can you begin to hold people accountable to these values this week, even in small ways?

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