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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Words to Live By: 5 Steps to Choosing Your Team's Core Values

If you’re familiar with Zappos, you’ve probably heard of the company’s core values. They’re plastered on the walls and committed to employees’ memories—and ultimately, they set the expectations for every Zappos worker. And so far, it seems to be working.

Defining a set of values can help unify your team—whether you head up a department or an entire company, it can help you make better hiring decisions, hold your team to higher standards, and work together more effectively toward your ultimate goals.

But values are going to look different for every team and company, depending on your personalities, customers, goals, and company mission. So how do you figure out the values that your team should live and work by?

A few years ago, I helped the startup company I worked for develop our first set of values—and in my current role as a manager of a team within a large company, I found that the same process works on a smaller scale, too. Here are the steps I followed and how you can use them in your own workplace.

1. Determine Who Should Be Involved

Depending on the size of your company or team, the group (or person) in charge of creating your values could look very different. In my startup role, I was one of two full-time managers; the rest of the company was made up of part-time employees. So, the founder decided that the key players in developing the values would be herself, me, and the other manager—later, we’d roll out the core values to the rest of the team.

As a manager in a larger company, this might look a little different. If you have a small team, you might directly involve those employees in the creation of the values. Or, maybe you have another department manager you’d like to team up with, or you’d like input from your boss.

But above everything, make sure all the decision makers you involve are on the same page: They should be committed to drafting and implementing these values, willing to brainstorm and compromise, able to demonstrate the determined traits themselves, and in agreement that these values will be a foundation for the team going forward.

2. Brainstorm About What’s Important to You and Your Team

For my team, the next step was to sit down together to brainstorm. But we didn’t just brainstorm ready-made values from the get-go. We’d scheduled the meeting several days in advance, so that everyone could come prepared with ideas. Once we were all sitting around the same table, we began by tossing out ideas of what was important to us each individually (e.g., being able to trust our employees, making sure our team has a fun work environment, and expecting each staffer to represent the company well in client interactions).

Then, we added in ideas for what we thought would make the team and company successful as a whole—like encouraging clear and constant communication and making sure each individual feels like he or she is significant in the startup’s “big picture” vision.

Letting our ideas flow freely helped us identify themes and hone in on what was most important—which came in handy during the next step:

3. Consolidate and Define

In my experience, this step took the longest—and for good reason. At this point, we took all the ideas we had brainstormed (roughly 30-40), combined the similar ones, narrowed the list down to 10, and thoroughly defined each resulting value.

For example, we found that several of our ideas had to do with the idea of having an “ownership mentality.” That is, we wanted our employees to feel like they could make good decisions on the fly (since they were interacting with clients without constant supervision on a daily basis), act in the best interest of the company and other employees (e.g., not calling out sick at the last minute), and truly feel like their actions impacted the company’s success.

In the end, we combined those thoughts to make one single value promoting an ownership mentality. Then, we used the ideas we’d originally to create a definition for it. For example, this particular definition read like this:

“We’re not just employees—we’re truly invested in the company. Our ideas are heard; moreover, they are taken into serious consideration, and often, implemented company-wide. Because we know that we are a vital part of the company, we consistently act with the company’s best interest in mind. We confidently make quick decisions on the job because we’re completely in line with the company’s mission and purpose. As employees, we have the authority to make decisions that are in the best interest of the company and the power to improve the way we run our business.”


4. Frame Your Values According to Your Team’s Culture

At the startup I worked for, all of our employees were college students working part-time—and so, we wanted to frame our values in a way that was relatable and inspiring; that made our employees excited about the vision we had for the company rather than bored by corporate lingo. So, after we had all 10 of our basic ideas defined, we renamed them in a more clever and eye-catching way.

For example, we had created a value centered on flexibility, encouraging the team to be willing and able to adapt to any situation. Instead of simply using “flexibility” or “agility” as the value, we coined it, “Roll with the punches.” In the long run, I think it made the values a little less intimidating—which made it easier for the team to adopt the values as part of their daily work lives.

Of course, your values may work best in a different style, depending on your team’s culture. Maybe you prefer them to be simple, clear, and easy to remember—and so, maybe a set of one-word values work best for you. Or, maybe you’d prefer to inject humor into your company standards. It all depends on what your employees respond best to.

5. Evaluate Your Values as a Complete Set

Once you have a set of values (we came up with 10, but there’s no firm rule—several companies I know end up in the five to 10 range), take some time to evaluate them as a whole. Do they encompass the most important aspects of the vision you have for your team or company? Are they ideas that you’re really willing to hold your employees (and yourself) to?

Why? Well, consider this: When my company decided to develop these values, we had all just finished reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos. While the book inspired us to form the values in the first place, we also caught ourselves using some of their values instead of truly focusing on what we wanted for our specific workplace.

Having a set of values only works if they’re ideas that are going to push you and your team to excellence—so make sure you’ve outlined what really will work for you.

With a unifying set of team or company values, you’ll find that your employees will feel more unified—knowing exactly what’s expected out of them and their teammates. It’s a strategy that can work for a team of five or a company of hundreds—and it can make a huge difference in your culture. (So, get brainstorming!)

Photo of people at work courtesy of Shutterstock.