How to Define Your Organizational Values

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Leadership Challenge" by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to define shared values within an organization? How does having clear organizational values help improve both morale and performance?

Effective teams are built on shared values, so as a leader, your first job is to define the organizational values that will guide you and your team. Clear organizational values help guide your team’s behaviors and choices so that they stay on the path toward organizational goals.

Establishing your organizational values is a two-part process: 1) figure out your values, and 2) affirm your values amongst your team. We’ll discuss both of these concepts below.

1. Figure Out Your Values

Your values are the enduring beliefs underpinning your actions—the principles that will guide your decisions. Your values:

  • Influence your moral judgments, your goals, and how you interact with others
  • Justify how and why you accomplish things
  • Determine how you react to adversity

For example, if you value diversity and believe innovation comes from a collaboration of different views and mindsets, then you’ll know how to react if people with different viewpoints keep getting shut down in meetings. If you value collaboration, you’ll know how to react when your salespeople aren’t sharing information with each other.  

Studies show that having clearly defined organizational values has several benefits: 

  • Benefits for you: When leaders are clear about their values, they score highly on measures of confidence, pride in their job, and dedication to their organization’s success. Leaders who are not clear about their values score lower on these benchmarks. 
  • Benefits for your team: People who work under leaders with clear leadership philosophies report far more job satisfaction, team spirit, pride, and willingness to work hard than those who don’t. 
  • Benefits for your organization: A landmark study of more than 100 CEOs and 8,000 employees found that organizations run by leaders with clear values enjoyed five times greater returns than organizations run by less-clear leaders. 

Make Sure Your Values Are Your Own

Before you can effectively communicate your values to others, you must clearly understand them yourself. Take time to think carefully about what you stand for and what priorities will drive your actions, because having a solid understanding of your own core principles will give you and your team confidence when making decisions. 

Your values must be a sincere expression of your own heart, and not merely a parroting of someone else’s values, if you want your constituents to feel properly engaged with them. 

  • When your mission is fully your own, in your own voice, you won’t lose sight of it or fail to see how it should affect your behavior. 
  • Your team members will also far more readily adopt your values if they know that you’re speaking from your heart, and not someone else’s. 
  • Further, if you merely parrot your boss’s values without charting a way forward for your own values as well, you’re not leading, you’re managing. Your team members will pick up on this and won’t afford you the credibility of a true leader. 

2. Affirm Your Shared Values

Once you’ve defined and communicated your values, help your team members align their values with the values of your organization. This is important for the long-term health of an organization:

  • Through shared values, you create an understanding of shared expectations.
  • Your constituents will be far more committed to and engaged in an organization they feel matches their beliefs. They have more energy, work harder, and stick around longer.  
  • When your constituents agree on a common cause, their energy accumulates: Each one catches the others’ enthusiasm. 

Strong teams are built on shared values. If team members have differing values and priorities, they often stop coordinating their efforts and instead work separately toward individual goals. When a team works disjointedly like this, they can cross wires and duplicate efforts. For this reason, companies with a strong set of shared values far outperform other companies. Research confirms that such companies have faster rates of profit growth, higher stock prices, stronger rates of job creation, and lower levels of turnover. 

This does not mean that everyone on your team must hold the exact same values—such a standard would allow for no diversity of opinion or disagreements, both of which are essential in a healthy organization. However, leaders should aim to ensure that their constituents agree on some basic, overall, core values. 

Proactively Start Conversations

To affirm your values with your team, proactively engage in conversations that talk about these values. Explicitly naming and discussing your values:

  • Aligns and clarifies expectations between you and your constituents
  • Reminds people why they are involved with your organization, prompting a renewal of energy and enthusiasm 
  • Encourages people to find more meaning in their work by helping them see how their work connects with their sense of identity
  • Fosters a sense of ownership of the organization’s mission, which encourages greater commitment

There are many ways you can spark conversations about values. For example, you might:

  • Meet with people individually and then discuss the team’s opinions at a group meeting. 
  • Relate a personal story at a staff meeting, that illustrates how you used your values in either your personal or professional life, and allow your team to respond and share similar experiences. 
  • Have your team fill out a questionnaire about their background, hobbies, what kind of work they like, what role they hope to play on the team, and what they respect in coworkers, and then have everyone share at a staff meeting. 

If your team has gone off track or stopped working effectively together, you can bring them back together by discussing your values. For example, say you’re hired to replace an ineffective department head, and you find that your new team members are combative, competitive, and disrespectful because of the culture the former department head fostered. You might approach the problem not by telling your constituents what you expect of them, but instead, letting them know what you expect of yourself. When you take initiative and establish which values you aspire to, you’ll likely find that others follow suit, sharing their own values and consciously recognizing how their actions do or don’t live up to them. 

Be prepared to have more than one conversation. Establishing a shared set of values is a process—it can’t be accomplished after a single heart-to-heart. The process will take time and will evolve. At first, team members may be focused on their own individual goals or reluctant to share their thoughts. However, if you’re consistent in your efforts, people typically start to open up, resulting in an increased feeling of shared purpose. 

Don’t Impose Your Own Values

Be sure that your conversations are dialogues in which you ask about your constituents’ values as much as you explain your own. Allow them to talk freely and explain their own beliefs and the reasons behind them—you won’t arrive at a consensus by demanding it or proclaiming that “These are our values.” Everyone must contribute to the conversation or they won’t feel authentic buy-in. You can, however, guide the conversation by emphasizing certain values that you want to start a dialogue about.  

Case Study: Andrew Levine at Young Storytellers

Andrew Levine demonstrated how to appeal to shared values in order to increase the effectiveness of his team members. Andrew was the head mentor at Young Storytellers, an organization that works with school children, developing their imaginations through narrative. He oversaw a group of volunteers who were each assigned a specific child to work with. When he noticed that some of his volunteers were having trouble connecting to their assigned kids, and that they were also showing low signs of commitment to the program as a whole (failing to show up for sessions), he decided to reset the program by focusing his volunteers’ minds on their shared values.

He initiated a conversation with them to explore the organization’s purpose and how it intersected with their own:

  • He asked them to reflect on why they had joined Storytellers in the first place.
  • He discussed his own reasons for joining, and why it was still so important to him.
  • He asked them to look at the program from a fifth grader’s perspective, and think about what the kids wanted from a mentor. 
  • He got them to focus on the most important aspect of the program, which was the connection to the children, and to stop thinking about other concerns, such as whether they felt qualified to impart expertise on storytelling. In other words, he got them to agree on a core value, even if they might hold different beliefs in other areas, and then empowered them to find their own voice in how to express that value.
  • He asked them to make the program a priority, and either commit to showing up for classes or drop out. 

In having this conversation, Andrew asked his volunteers to affirm their shared values, while allowing them room to lead with their own values. His volunteers were re-energized and excited about the mission he reminded them of. 

You don’t have to lay down an ultimatum like he did, asking people to either fully commit or leave. However, you can remind people that they can willingly choose to belong to whichever organization they connect to, and they should make it a priority to find one that resonates, whether it’s yours or not. They often will respond positively and with renewed energy. 

How to Define Your Organizational Values

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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