Putting core values up on a wall is not enough. High-performing organizations approach values in three key ways:
- They choose their core values together.
- They apply them in the workings of the organization.
- They routinely test them for fit.
We’ve all seen it. I’m sure you can picture it. Walking into an organization’s facility and seeing the big words posted on the wall to a shining backdrop. The letters pop out at you as you walk by. Words like: “Strength,” “Accountability,” or “United” are plastered on the walls of many athletic facilities, locker rooms and corporate offices. These words are supposed to represent collective values developed and embodied from within. However, how often are these values realized and reinforced at the ground level?
What are Core Values?
Core values guide our decision-making process and behaviours. Whether we are conscious of it or not, they are our north star as we pursue purpose and accomplish our goals. But that’s not all! Culture is so much more. Values can also serve as a foundation for team culture. It can combine the team members’ traits, skills, attitudes, and behaviours that are all expressed through their values.
Many organizations think putting words on a wall can influence culture and even help the team succeed, but this falls short when values are imposed then nothing more is done to integrate them into the daily environment.
When seeing the core values of an organization, I ask myself: Who chose these values? How did they choose them? How are they integrated into their daily environment? What checks and balances are in place to see if they work with the team?
Defining Core Values: Top-down, Bottom-up, or Inside-out?
Years ago, when I was away at a competition as a coach, I ran into another team’s head coach in front of their core values on the wall. I decided to ask them about it: “where did they come from?” They replied: “We picked them as a coaching staff. It was much simpler because the athletes wouldn’t have picked the right values.”
I paused to reflect. This meant the organization imposed their core values on the team members. If the players don’t select what values resonate with them, they are much less likely to connect or act according to what’s chosen.
Years later, when I was working with Team Canada Volleyball, I was tasked to work with their boy’s U21 summer team. This team was hand-picked to spend the summer together for a world championship in the fall, so the timeline was finite. We decided to pick our team values together during our first in-person meeting. For this activity, we wanted everyone to contribute. We first had them work in pairs to share and discuss what they valued. Together, they decided what they thought the team values should be. Next, pairs merged to form groups of four, and the exercise began again. One more round in groups of eight, then the two groups presented to each other. The athletes voted to pick the top three of the six proposed values. Our team values for the summer were: “family,” “passion,” and “consistency.”
For values to be successful, they should be derived from the bottom up rather than from the top down. The athletes (or employees), along with other stakeholders, should select values that connect with their traits and the team. Values can be wide-ranging. As long as they fit the people, the objectives, and the context, they will help guide the organization to success.
Applying Core Values: Talk the Talk AND Walk the Walk.
As I continued chatting with the coach, I asked, “how do you use them?” They replied: “well after we pick them, they are on the wall so everyone can see. That was the activity.”
I took another pause to reflect. This meant nothing was done with the core values after being painted on the wall. If the players don’t have opportunities to integrate values into their training and environment, again, they are much less likely to connect or act according to what’s chosen.
We discussed mental tools and skills to apply through our values with the National team twice weekly at the start of practice. Some examples of how we used the values:
- For “family,” we discussed the team’s interpersonal behaviours off the court, on the court and in the game. One of the “family” rituals was greeting every coach and player upon arrival at the gym.
- For “passion,” we discussed concepts like gratitude and being present in the moment through skills like anchoring.
- For “consistency,” we practised journaling their learnings during practice to keep track and learn faster.
To begin influencing culture, links between core values and behaviours should be deliberately highlighted through multiple channels in training, competing, and daily decision-making processes for the team. Our ability to work with these tools under the umbrella of the chosen values framework allowed us to shape our culture continually.
Testing Core Values: one-and-done or Regular check-ins?
To wrap up my conversation with the coach before we had to go, I asked: “how do you know if your athletes are following your core values? He angrily replied: “Ah… we already know! We can’t get them to follow them. None of the athletes listen.”
I paused again to reflect. This meant that with no follow-up, these words remained just words on a wall. The organization expects the athletes to live and breathe these values, but could the team members even recite them if asked?
With the U21 boys, at the start of each meeting, we would recap the applications of the previously discussed tools and skills. Did they work? Are we on the right track? The athletes would chat in groups of two or three and then share with the group the highlights. We qualitatively measured every meeting whether or not the team lived their values through these behaviours.
Regular check-ins should be done to track and guide the adherence and impact the values bring. The only thing that needed to be added was a quantitative approach to get an accurate read on other cultural-personal or -performance factors like accountability or autonomy.
Driving culture: how will you drive it?
Culture is dynamic, moving, and just as alive as its people. It will constantly evolve as the people in them grow and change. Letting those that are a part of it choose, integrate, and evaluate the core values will succeed at integrating them into the daily environment and know where the values are pushing the team. These are excellent ways to start driving culture.
Unless we empower our teams to choose, plan and use them daily or check in regularly, we become a part of a culture that just writes words on a wall. And, like the details of the many walls we see, we forget.
About the author
Jason Boivin, Lead Content Strategist at innerlogic.
Jason holds a master’s degree in Human Kinetics with a concentration in Intervention and Consultation from the University of Ottawa in Canada, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, and is a Chartered Professional Coach with the Coaches Association of Canada.
Jason is driven by his passion for helping others succeed in a meaningful way. Through his extensive work with high-performance teams, Jason has developed a deep appreciation for culture and its impact on relationships and results.