Too many leaders set values unilaterally — from the top down. Top-down values aren’t really values. They’re commands.
Especially in today’s talent market, where people crave a combination of pure self-expression and values-driven work, top-down values just don’t cut it. People don’t want their stories written for them. They want to control their own destinies, making their voices fundamental threads in the tapestry of company values.
Rather than having leaders name values and expecting everyone else to obey, all companies should set organizational values from the bottom up. Where top-down values may make sense to the leader, they’re little more than words on a wall to everyone else. Bottom-up values, created by the people who are paid to uphold them, secure universal buy-in and the power of collective belief.
To build values from the bottom up, companies should hold a team-wide exercise (repeated every six months). It’s one I’ve used with Upscribe, and that I’d recommend to all teams, everywhere.
How to identify values:
- Start with a clean slate. It might be tempting for leaders to start the meeting with a preconceived list of values. But this actually inhibits groupthink. Start instead with a blank page, giving everybody in the room the chance to be an author.
- Have the team name values that speak to traits they embody personally, have seen embodied, or want to embody. Identify values based on internal qualities, external observations, and aspirations.
- Identify values based on alignment. Chances are, if you’ve built a team around clear hiring criteria, multiple people will list the same values. We saw this when Upscribe did this exercise — an encouraging level of agreement on multiple values.
Once you’ve identified values, perpetuate them
Values that you don’t actively champion are doomed to become empty words.
- Once a month, hold values shoutouts. In values shoutouts, each member of the team shares one example of how somebody else embodied a value. This gets the team thinking more collaboratively and shows everyone that good work doesn’t go unnoticed.
- Use storytelling to your advantage. Humans are biologically designed to respond to stories. As a leader, use your platform to retell stories of values-driven work, putting a praiseful spotlight on your people.
Strengthening team values is important for:
- Alignment. A team becomes more than the sum of its parts when its members are aligned over a common objective. Business outcomes are a material objective, but the real quest, especially today, is value-driven. Team alignment breeds workplace cohesion and raises the likelihood of positive business outcomes.
- Decision-making efficiency. There will be times when your organization faces a fork in the road — two tempting, but mutually exclusive possibilities. For example, if an enterprise merchant approached Upscribe and asked us to build a feature for them, we have to ask: Do we devote resources to building that unique feature (value: Service), or do we focus resources on trying to serve a greater good (value: Innovation)? If one value were more important to us, it would allow us to make a quick, informed decision.
- Checks and balances. By repeating the values exercise every six months, you give your team a chance to take a values temperature check. Which values are you successfully embodying? Which could you be doing better with? And which that you thought were important aren’t actually so crucial?
As with any committed endeavor, the more you iterate thoughtfully, the more you evolve. Values shouldn’t be static; they should be living, breathing reflections of what your team is and wants to be. If the leader dictates it, the team feels like they’re living by someone else’s rules, and resents it. But if your team creates governing principles, they own them, and they have a personal stake in upholding them.