3 Tips to Jumpstart Your Values

An illustration of values

By Molly Penn

The end of one year and the beginning of another is a good time for reflection on your values. Certainly, the events of the past two years have given us all much fodder for reflection: how did we care for our staff and constituents throughout the ongoing pandemic; where did we land on the racial justice movement and how are we being attentive to the trauma faced by our colleagues of color and constituents every day; how is the demise of our democracy affecting our mission?

As you reflect and plan for the months ahead, consider your organization’s values. They are the bedrock of all you do today and are the core of how you represent yourselves to the world.  Core values are demonstrated in every aspect of how we think, act, and relate as members of our organizations.

When you declare your values, you are putting yourself out there: visible, vulnerable, accountable.  It tells the world that just producing results is not acceptable; how you produce those results is also fair game to be examined, discussed and measured. Simply by making them more explicit, we give them more power and influence, we become more conscious, more aware.  We begin to hold ourselves and others more accountable and we create a shared framework within which we all know how to operate.

In this article, we will explore how values shape culture, and how you can use them to drive alignment, connection to your mission and motivation amongst your staff and board.

Values are the unseen elements of culture

As the guiding principles of your organization, values should be clearly articulated, communicated often to all stakeholders, and reflective of your organization’s ideal state of being. They are the pillars of culture; if culture change or strengthening is on the agenda this year, take a hard look at your values.

In some organizations there is a clear set of values, but they have never been made explicit.  In others, especially organizations that have undergone leadership or staff turnover, there is a need to come together to articulate a set of values to guide the work on a daily basis.

Values should be living tenets and we advocate revisiting them often to ensure they remain alive and relevant.  In our own firm, we start the year by reflecting on how our values played out in the last year, and whether they still feel relevant so we can identify any needed changes.  We are often told by prospective clients that our values resonated with them – so not only do our values guide our own team internally, but articulating them publicly (on our website) ensure we attract the right kind of clients who understand and share those values.

 3 Tips for value creation this year

Here are some practical ideas for (re)defining your values as you look ahead to a new year.

1. Develop values collaboratively

Involve all stakeholders in value creation. This could mean creating a values committee that oversees the process or using time during your next all-staff meeting to do so. By whatever means you engage people, remember that effective values are not created by senior leaders and dictated to others in the organization.

2. Avoid vague virtues

Many organizations use virtue words like “integrity,” “dignity,” and “responsibility” for their values. In the end, many of these words are indistinguishable across organizations and can take on different meanings in different situations.  You don’t want your values to be ineffective and vague.

3. Focus on differentiation

Values should be the compass that shows employees and constituents what you stand for and how you live into your mission.   so what is most important is developing succinct descriptions of what these words mean in the context of your mission.  In fact, when we are working with clients to develop these statements, we not only ask them to describe what it looks like when someone is embodying that value, but also what it looks like when someone is not embodying that value.

Aligning values with people management

Stating your values is an important first step, but values will only be effective if they truly govern how people act.  Incorporating your values into your job descriptions and performance management systems motivates employees to act according to your common ideals.

We are advocates of using a competency-based performance management system that is customized around articulating your values as a set of core competencies and standards for how work is accomplished.  In these performance-management tools, we work with clients to articulate what it looks like to miss expectations around embodying that value, to meet expectations and to exceed expectations.  By giving examples in each of these categories, we help clients ensure that the values are completely clear and are important roadmaps for how you want to show up in your work.

Integrity & Ethics   

What it looks like when a person is…
Missing Expectations Meeting Expectations Exceeding Expectations
  • Does not hold others or self accountable for acting in accordance with [organization]’s policies
  • Neglects to provide all relevant information when dealing with a problem or mistake
  • Often “points fingers” or blames others when faced with mistakes or failures
  • Is careless with confidential information
  • Often fails to follow through on commitments
  • Is trusted and respected by colleagues
  • Freely admits not having answers, even when under pressure
  • Provides all relevant information, even when it compromises his position
  • Openly accepts responsibility for mistakes and failures
  • Keeps confidential information secure
  • Generally keeps promises and honors commitments
  • Proactively shares all relevant information about problems, mistakes, or difficult situations; offers solutions to prevent situations from arising in future
  • Inspires respect and confidence in others
  • Consistently models the highest standards of personal and professional ethics
  • Judiciously upholds [organization]’s policies
  • Deals harshly with mishandled confidential matters

 Remember …

Communicate values early and often

If you wait until onboarding to introduce values, you’re too late. Set expectations with prospective employees by stating values on job postings and sharing them during the interview process. When communicating values to new hires, both senior leaders and managers must be involved. Leaders should explain the values to all staff on an ongoing basis, and managers can reinforce them with their teams and direct reports regularly. When employees understand what the organization values, they will have an easier time seeing how their performance aligns with such ideals.

Connect values to behaviors

Values-based performance management translates values into concrete behaviors.  As a manager, when you see your staff exhibiting these values notice them and offer praise to reinforce that they create a noticeable difference.  You might even share these behavior examples with others, “When Mary walked our client from the intake area, to the pantry area and gave her a tour, she really embodied our value of ‘dignity’ by treating her with respect and giving her choices.”

Emphasize feedback

Finally, ensure the performance management system incorporates ongoing values feedback. Train managers to assess value achievement through behaviors. Coach leaders in giving feedback that is focused on the behavior itself, not the individual; invite input from the staff at every performance management meeting; and encourage an opportunity for improvement as a chance to grow.

Get started today

We are PENN Creative Strategy are excited about a new year, and all the possibilities it contains. As you refresh and recommit to your 2022 goals, consider how your values reflect your organization’s best and support your people to be their best, too.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help you develop strong values to guide the advancement of your mission.

Drop in for Office Hours and talk with our experts!

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