How to Uncover your Organization’s Values

Dori Rutkevitz

Head of Organizational Development & Culture – Mosaic

Values are a building block of culture; they define the mindsets and behaviors that are expected within your organization.

Misty Mountains by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash

This is a practical guide detailing how you can articulate your organization’s core values. This is inspired by what we did at Mosaic, and by advice and insights from friends at Delivering HappinessUncharted, and the STProject. There are great articles out there making the case for why the world needs more purpose- and values-driven organizations (and how the bottom line can benefit). This article is for those who are already bought in but need help with implementation.

Values are guidelines for behavior. If a vision statement is the “why” of an org, the values are the “how”. Ideally, values embody the vision — a vision is a description of what the organization wants the world to look like, which includes a view of how people should go about treating each other and their surroundings. Living your values is a way to enact your vision.

Values are a building block of culture; they define the mindsets and behaviors that are expected within your org (both in internal and external interactions). “Culture” is not about perks (e.g. ping-pong and kombucha), it’s about the way we treat each other, the expectations we have of our team and leaders, and the ethical lens we apply to decision-making.

Values are not created

They are uncovered by listening to how a group of people already organize themselves. Values will not be effective if they are generated behind closed doors by an executive team in isolation. I would argue that finding words that sound good, posting them up on the walls, and forgetting about them actually does more harm than good. Values need to be articulated in an inclusive way so that they can inspire and be collectively owned by everyone in the org.

Top leadership buy-in and involvement is nonetheless critical. For values to be believable, the organization needs to be willing to use them to make tough decisions. Are you willing to hire, fire, and inform strategic direction based on these values? If not, then you run the risk of creating a set of values that won’t be lived and costing the org its integrity.

Step by step guide

The below is based on how Mosaic created its values when we were ~35 people and growing. There are many good ways to do this — use the below as an inspiration rather than a set of rules.

1. Communication. The bigger the org, the more important it is to communicate consistently and transparently throughout this process. Beforehand, let everyone know why you want to spend time exploring the values that drive the organization: what benefits will this create for your team, and how will this help you achieve your vision? Make sure folks have visibility into the entire timeline, so they know when to expect results.

2. Assemble a Values-Team. Ideally, this team represents a cross-section of your organization; members should have a diversity of rank and background. Discuss the reasons for this work (come with your own reasons but also ask the group what the benefits might be for the org). You can use this group to get advice on your plan (e.g. present them with the process below, adapted to your org). Once people are aligned, prototype the process by having this team walk through a values workshop. Once you’re done, have everyone reflect on one thing that worked really well about the workshop and one thing that could have improved their experience — incorporate the feedback before rolling it out to the rest of the org.

3. Values workshops. At Mosaic, we scheduled workshops for groups of 10 people at a time to come work on our values.

  • Why. Start by talking about why defining values might be useful. It’s important to let people know that you aren’t trying to be purely aspirational; the values you eventually create should reflect strengths and patterns that already exist, not absent things that should ideally exist. Acknowledge the fact that the organization isn’t perfect, and certainly falls short of some of these values at times. The purpose of doing this exercise is to help the organization reinforce these existing values.
  • Personal reflection. Then have everyone journal exploring their own personal values. You can create any set of prompts you like here; for us, the questions prompted reflection on what a person feels is most important in their work and relationships. Examples:

Who are people you’ve admired or looked up to as role models in your life? What made you admire them?

What are examples of times you’ve felt proud of a friend, family member, or yourself? What specifically made you proud?

Think of a dilemma you’ve faced that you felt proud of you how you handled, but initially were unsure of what to do. What guided you as you navigated the situation?

  • Collective reflection. Prompt group conversation focusing on collective values that people think are represented in the org.

What’s one strength of our current culture?

(You can use similar prompts as in the personal values section, or) What do we collectively prioritize? What behaviors do we seem to value the most? What do we never do or view as unacceptable?

  • Clustering. As the group names values, have a scribe record them on a whiteboard. As more people share, you’ll be able to cluster values that are thematically related. If multiple people say the same thing, just put a checkmark by the word to indicate frequency. By the end of each workshop, you should walk away with a list of values grouped into general buckets. (If you want to invest extra time in team-building, you can now have folks share some general reflections they had from the entire exercise.)

4. Wordsmithing. After crowdsourcing buckets of values, it’s time to move into wordsmithing. It’s not effective to do this in the workshops with large groups of people; like writing poetry, everyone will have their own take, and it’s hard to craft a poem by committee. Wordsmithing the values is the responsibility of the Values Team. Choose one person in the team to be responsible for creating each new draft of the values. Understand that you can’t find the absolutely perfect words to satisfy everyone, so make sure the person doing the wordsmithing is both able to represent many voices (empathetic) and also able to let go of total control (low ego). The process goes like this:

  • Writer takes the buckets of values from the workshops and refines it to a set of a max of 10 values.
  • The V-team provides feedback on wording, making sure to call out if an important trend or value from the workshops is not being represented.
  • Writer wordsmiths again, and returns to the V-team.
  • This process may repeat a couple of times until a new version of the values is ready to be shared with the whole company. Aim to have a max of 6 values by the end of this process.
  • Here is a link to Mosaic’s values. You’ll notice that each value is accompanied by a couple of descriptive sentences. The more specific the sentences are, the easier it will be for people to engage with the values not just as abstractions but as guidelines.

5. Share the draft with everyone. Once the V-team is ready, present the latest draft to the whole company and put it up on a wall in a well-trafficked area. Place sticky notes on the wall and request that anyone write their feedback and stick it by the appropriate value. Make sure everyone knows the deadline for feedback and send reminders to ensure all the feedback gets surfaced.

6. Incorporate feedback. The V-team incorporates the remaining feedback into a final draft of the values (this may require more iterations between the writer and the team).

7. Integrate. The process of making values real takes many months of effort. At Mosaic, we spent a company offsite reviewing the final draft of our values and asked each other to think about how we hold ourselves accountable to those values. We discussed specific ways to embed values in our policies and practices, and tried to get as specific as possible when describing behaviors that would or wouldn’t be aligned with our values. The goal here is to get concrete so that people can begin to understand what these values might mean for their team or role. You also want to encourage everyone to take ownership of your culture here; invite new ideas on ways to embed and strengthen the values.

Our learnings, looking back

Making values real, like any other cultural change, takes investment and constant practice. Here are some tips:

  • Talk about them a lot. We review our values in every monthly all-hands meeting. We ask that people identify a “value of the month” that they personally want to work on, and then pair up to share that commitment.
  • We make space in all-hands (and some team) meetings for Value Shout-outs. We ask people to praise each other for living the values. This felt a little awkward at first, but soon allowed for truly moving moments.
  • Develop at least one interview question for each value and ask each candidate the same questions; this helps you check for “values-fit” and does some work to prevent the phrase “they’re not a cultural fit” being used to support unconscious biases (this is a dangerous misuse of organizational values and a topic for a different article).

Some lessons learned:

  • 8 values is too many to easily memorize. Cap your list to ~5 values.
  • During the wordsmithing process, watch out for “mash-ups”. People tend to want to avoid disappointing each other and excluding a value that sounds good, so they will mash-up slightly related values into one. Unfortunately, this ends up diluting the power of both values being combined. It’s better to have a few really potent values then a more comprehensive list of mash-ups.
  • It’s critical to hire for values-fit, especially in leadership positions. We made this an explicit part of the interview process by requiring that every candidate meet with someone from the Values team (who leverage the same list of values question), and that values interviewer had an equal say in the hiring decision as every other interviewer.
  • Owning missteps is one of the best ways to solidify values. We often see mistakes as being very costly, but they are also tremendous opportunities (that you can’t buy) to strengthen values. It’s important to step up publically and acknowledge values-missteps, and as part of a commitment to not do it again, create specific policies or practices.
  • It’s not enough to have inspiring values, good intentions and good people, you actually need to dedicate resources, time and energy to building culture. There is a momentum to business-as-usual, and your values will likely require energy from you to counteract that momentum. One of the best things to do here is to acknowledge and support culture champions. There are people in your org who will champion your values; this actually takes work on their part that is outside of their job description. Don’t let them burn out on doing too many invisible jobs: make space in their job description for this work and make sure their manager understands the value they are adding. Ask your champions what support they need, or what they think the org needs next.
  • The biggest challenge is maintaining integrity with your values when business pressure is high. Every organization needs to figure out its own ways of holding its members and leaders accountable to values. Understand that the longer you leave a leader in power who is not seen as values-aligned, the more damage you do to trust levels in the company. Set clear expectations for leaders when they join, and give them immediate feedback and support (e.g. coaching) when they are off-step here.

Signs of successful values integration:

  • Employees push back when leaders misstep. If people are willing to take the risk of speaking truth to power when values aren’t being followed, then it means they actually care about the integrity of your values. This might be painful, but push back like this can be a sign that your values are real to people.
  • I often hear interviewees mention values to me without my bringing it up first. Candidates are naturally hearing about values from other interviewers (without us training interviewers to do so).
  • We use CultureAmp to gauge employee engagement, and have customized some questions (e.g. “I see Mosaic’s values being used as guidelines when we make decisions”) to keep us moving in the right direction. We see high scores for questions like this, and use any lower scores as prompts for exploration on how we can do better. Creating some kind of regular feedback loop for culture is key.

This work is ever evolving; our culture and understanding of our values continues to change as our organization grows. Our goal is to have our values inspire our work, even as the external manifestations of our work changes.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Posted in Blog.

About Dori Rutkevitz

Dori is the head of Organizational Development & Culture at Mosaic. He uses coaching, facilitation, and systems change to accelerate the transition to more humane and aware workplaces. He designs and facilitates intensive leadership retreats that foster increased self-awareness and the development of new perspectives on what powerful leadership looks like. Leveraging his training in mindfulness and somatic psychotherapy, he coaches leaders on better understanding the unexamined beliefs and assumptions that drive their leadership. Dori leads the design of systemic approaches to culture change, balancing tops-down mindset shifts with bottoms-up empowerment and skill building.

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