How Core Values Can Be A Powerful Tool For Teams

“With the right people, culture, and values, you can accomplish great things” -Tricia Griffith

Core values are used to outwardly express what an individual, organization or company stands for. They are helpful in explaining what is valued and what is held in high regard. In organizations and companies, core values are generally decided on at the highest level and pushed down to the rest of the individuals to adopt and adhere to.

We know that core values are a key ingredient for many successful businesses. What if those same concepts could be applied at the team or department level? Lately, I have began to consider how core values can be used for individual teams within an organization. The first thing to consider is that the department/teams core values must help support the overall core values of the organization. Assuming there is alignment, I believe having core values for a team can be helpful in many ways. Before we look at the benefits, let’s look at three things that are important when selecting core values:

1. This needs to be a team exercise

The process of selecting core values should not be something the leader chooses and directs their team to follow. In order to get buy-in, it is important for the team to be actively involved in the process of choosing their own values. If someone manages a large team, then the leadership team can be a great group of individuals to help select the core values. The process must be very collaborative and everyone’s ideas and suggestions need to be valued. The team will be much more apt to adopt these values as their own if they are part of the process to develop them. 

2. They should be succinct and easy to understand

Core values should be just long enough to convey the message that is intended. Really long core values tend to be harder to read and more difficult to explain. Some individuals will be tempted to be very specific about what the value looks like and how it can be measured. It is better to keep it shorter and to allow for some flexibility rather than being too specific and rigid. The core value itself should define an outcome or behavior rather than explain how to achieve something. The best core values are one sentence or less and paint a picture of what the value looks like. For example, one of the core values that our team developed was “Be open to the ideas around you - diverse perspectives have value”. This sends the message that we value the ideas of others, that no one person has all the answers, encourages collaboration, and highlights how a diverse workforce can bring value to those around them. By using a succinct phrase, several key messages can be derived from it.

3. They are most effective when limited to 5 or less

When selecting core values, it is important to not have too many items on the list. Core values are guideposts that help set the tone and direction for the team. While there is no hard and fast rule regarding how many values are permitted, my personal preference is to have no more than five. If the number becomes larger than five, it is more difficult for people to remember what they are. It is also easier for the message to become diluted and become less impactful. It is better to have a small number of core values that the team is passionate about and remember rather than a large number of values that no one can recall or adhere to. 

Now that we have reviewed some important aspects of what core values should look like, let’s look at how core values can be beneficial to a team.

1. It gets everyone “rowing in the same direction”

One of the responsibilities of a leader is to get everyone working towards a common goal. It can become easy for teams to lose focus and instead get distracted by the “shiny object syndrome” (the term used for someone who is distracted by the “new” thing or something more appealing). Core values can help leaders ensure everyone is speaking a common language and upholding a consistent set of values. This can help tremendously when a leader is trying to create a culture of accountability and personal responsibility throughout the team. This quote from Roy Disney does a great job at summarizing this concept about values and decision making:

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

2. It brings the team back to “true north”

In times past, flags were used on the battlefield to help the soldiers navigate through the chaos and fog of war. Flags had multiple purposes such as giving commands to soldiers that included when to retreat, advance, rally, etc. They were also used to aid the soldiers in locating their regimen and boost morale during the heat of the battle. While we are not in a literal battle, core values can be used similarly to aid our teams during time of confusion, stress, or change. Values can be used as the standard by which our teams work and interact together. By upholding to these core values it can be a tool for leaders to point to something as a rallying point for the team. 

3. Serves as “yardstick” for staffing and recruitment 

Interviewing and hiring can be a mix of both art and science. The candidates must possess the skills necessary to perform the job they are being interviewed for. In addition (and in many ways more importantly), they must be a good cultural fit for the team and the organization. One of the tools that can aid in determining cultural fit is using core values. Questions can be asked of the candidate to better understand if their values align with that of the team. Other interviewers can also rank and score the candidates based on how well they feel they would support and promote these values. This provides a tangible way to score some of the “soft” areas of the interview while better understanding the interviewee. Interesting enough, this can also serve as a recruitment tool as potential candidates will desire to work with a team that shares their same value. Lastly, core values can also be used as a guide to coach and mentor staff if their actions run contrary to the values of the team. This helps ensure everyone on the team is held to the same standards when the expectations are clearly communicated.

Core values do not have to be exclusively at the company level but can also be used at the team and/or department level. Establishing, communicating and promoting core values throughout the team can assist leaders with creating a common set of values that everyone adopts and fosters. If you have not explored the benefits of implementing core values for your team, I would encourage you to try it out. The exercise of coming up with your teams core values is worth the effort it takes. It also provides some great insight into what principles and behaviors your team members hold in high esteem.