It’s undeniable how hot things are in our country with an ongoing global pandemic playing out in the backdrop of our fractured States of America. It’s likely your team is feeling the heat, and before you even realize it, anger and fear trumps you and your team’s own knowing of how to show up and move forward together.

To keep your organization from getting swept up in the flames it’s essential work to foster a strong and cohesive team. But how do you keep everyone together and aligned when everything and everyone around you seem all but aligned?

Whether in times of peace or pandemic, your core values are there to remind everyone on your team who you are, serving as clear boundaries in how you work and relate to one another. When anything pushes against or violates those boundaries, you can readily check yourself and your team to get back on track with purpose, keeping your work environment healthy and aligned.

Core Values as Riverbanks

Imagine your core values are the riverbanks of your culture. They are the natural boundaries that hold your culture in and set the standard for the way you think, act, behave and work with each other every day. They are there to guide your actions, maximize your culture and keep every person on the same page.

Every day we each show up to work with our own individual needs and wants depending on what’s been happening in our lives. We need something to take us out of this individualistic thinking, and core values are there to help us refocus by reminding us how we should be operating as a team.

In the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith writes about our blind spots and the four ego-based drivers of self-interest: money, power, status and popularity. We wrestle with these everyday as human beings, and we see this encouraged throughout the history of our American society where we are celebrated for our individual success and conditioned to look out for number one. 

When we come into the workspace, core values are there to help every member of the team step outside of this self-interest in order to both think about and desire the success of our team as a whole, not just individual success.

Core Values Can Define DNA

It’s certainly not wrong to want to be successful personally and professionally, but it is important to care equally about the success of the team and how we behave and act towards one another – and this takes intention. Core values help make this goal more achievable by giving your team actual words and phrases that every member can talk about and be accountable to.

Core values have permeated the business world in 2020. Employees and candidates now more than ever what to know from employers, what are your core values? Before making a big step, candidates really want to know if they will fit into your organization. Clients are also starting to ask; how do you tick internally? What is your culture like?

The best way to establish your core values is to think about how you are different as a company. When you come together as one, what does your DNA look like? If all things are equal between you and every other company, what differentiates you from everyone else?

When working with a team to define their DNA, I start out by asking those in the room (or on the Zoom) to make a long list of nouns, verbs and adjectives that come to mind when thinking about who they are together. Next, I narrow the list down by making the team fight for what should remain. I want to hear that word or phrase that the team refuses to let go of because it’s why they get out of bed in the morning. This is the place where a team really drills down on their differentiators and how their culture is defined.

For example, one of our core values at Navigate the Journey is help first. Whether coaching or consulting, helping is the first thing we should be thinking about, not being right or trying to start a philosophy. Helping others is what we are so passionate about, and when you start to feel that passion, you know you’ve got a core value. It can be such a fun, cool and rewarding process.

Core Values Dos and Don’ts

As you get to work on naming your core values, here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind:

Do be vulnerable

Allow space for your team to be honest and be able to say as much about what you are as what you aren’t.

Don’t be aspirational

Core values are who you are and what defines you today, so this isn’t the time to talk about who you wish to be one day.

Do scratch off permission to play

Oftentimes during this exercise people need to be told to reach a little further and be creative. Someone on your team may suggest “integrity,” “honesty” or “respect,” and I’d challenge you to ask them to define it further. If you’re not an honest person, you probably shouldn’t be there in the first place, right? These virtues should simply be assumed. Keep playing!

Don’t be trendy

For a while everyone wanted innovation to be a core value. I’d ask, ok, why? Get behind what that means and maybe there’s a different way of saying it. Push until you get to words or phrases that really resonate with who you are and how you operate beyond a cultural moment.

Do define them

Defining a core value is just as important as naming it. Oftentimes an organization’s leadership will create a list of words as core values to present to their team, but the team doesn’t exactly know what that looks like. You must take the step of defining these words. If growth is one of your core values, what does that mean to your company? Don’t just get out Webster’s Dictionary to define them, but instead use the words that are true to your team.

Don’t create more than five

You really want your team to both fight for them and remember them. If you have too many core values, simply put – nobody remembers them, and nobody cares about them.

Do make these about you

While there are plenty of companies who develop core values as a sales tactic, that’s not really what core values are. While you can call out behaviors or beliefs that show up in how you serve your clients, core values work best when the focus is on who you are as a team internally. It’s very likely these values will still play out with your clients. For example, if one of your core values is to think outside the box, your clients will feel that in your work, but you’re not thinking outside the box just to close the deal or to win. It’s simply being true to who you are.

Don’t forget to live them out

You can go through the process, come up with the words and write them on the wall, but if you don’t operationalize them, hire and fire against them and stick with them, you will create a very strong tool for cynicism. Empty core values create cynical employees. It’s best to stick with them or not to have them at all.  To make clear to your team what a core value looks like, work on filling in the blanks of this simple sentence: We are/believe in _________, therefore we _________.  Name the example that shows how you live each core value out before presenting to your team. By doing this, you show your team how to put a core value into action.

When you see people living out a core value, recognize it! From hiring to firing, reviews and rewards, town hall meetings and a Monday morning shoutout on slack, it’s essential to consistently point out what your core values look like in real life. This is where they become tangible, real and sticky.

At their core, core values point us towards our humanity, something we need now more than ever. They are there to remind us that we’re not all out for each other, down for profit, in it only for success, popularity, status or fame. Sure, some of those things can be nice, but if you really care about fostering a strong and cohesive team, then core values are the essential tool to get you back on track and keep your team’s work environment healthy and aligned.

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Traci Barrett is a Leadership and Strategic Consultant. After spending over 20 years in the television and advertising industry, Traci decided to merge her decades of experience leading, strategizing, managing and mentoring by starting the executive coaching and consulting firm, Navigate the Journey.

Through NTJ, Traci helps individuals and organizations discover their motivations and strengths, build their leadership skills, strategize on cultivating business and ultimately, realize their full potential. Traci was part of a small team that launched the national cable television network HGTV: Home & Garden Television in 1994. She helped lead the network to success running their Chicago and Dallas Offices for over 17 years. Traci holds a B.A. in Telecommunications & Marketing from Indiana University. She also holds her M.A. in Professional Psychology from the Illinois School of Psychology.

Traci is also a cohost at Overly Human, a podcast about what it means to be human in the workplace. Learn more at https://www.overlyhuman.com/ and listen to each episode wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

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