Whether it’s a large corporation, a small or medium enterprise, a not for profit, church or other community group, core values form the epicentre of an organization’s culture. They are what I call the ‘what matters most’. Arising from your organization’s basic beliefs, positive core values are those 4-7 essential motivational principles held by members and leaders that drive forward the group’s purpose or mission; releasing passion, creativity and commitment and providing depth and guidance for fulfilling the group’s vision and goal achievement. (Why limit it to no more than 7? Because most members and leaders won’t remember more!)
How to Discern Your Group’s Core Values
As it is vital that core values are lived out at every level within an organization, I advocate that the discernment process begins with listening to the value-laden stories within your group. This is best achieved by the following steps:
1. Appoint a Values Discernment Team (VDT) –
The senior leadership team recruits a small task group, led by one of the organization’s senior leaders, to listen to the stories that reflect its current and past values. Two members from the task group (one to chair, the other to take notes) facilitate focus group conversations in which organizational members are interviewed using a series of questions such as:
- When have you experienced X (X= the name of the organization, business, community group, congregation, etc.) being at its best?
- What makes you most proud being a member of X
- What would have to be true for X to be able to fulfil its mission and vision?
From the various responses, and clarifying where necessary, the VDT members distil the core values – the key values emerging from the stories.
2. Foundational and Missional Values
Once all the focus groups have finished, the VDT meets together to share the key stories and the identified core values. The values are then classified as either foundational or missional.
- Foundational Values: Are values related to ‘being’ – they express the character of the organization. Examples could be: inclusion, empathy, respect, fun.
- Missional Values: Are those concerned with doing, such as: risk-taking, collaboration, consensus decision-making or innovation.
For example, UnitingCare Queensland has 3 foundational values: respect, justice, compassion; and 2 missional values: working together and leading though learning. When most people think of values they usually nominate foundational values, not missional. But values only about being and not also doing are insufficient. I encourage a balance of both, for both are needed to shape an organizational culture that fulfils vision and achieves goals.
3. Check against Mission
The next step is for the VDT to report to senior leaders (executive team, elders, council, etc.) on the outcome of the focus group meetings. Their report will list the main foundational and missional core values arising from the focus group meetings as well as a sample of key stories shared. It should also include a reflection on the extent to which each value supports the organization’s mission and vision. The report may also recommend 4-7 core values for the executive team to consider.
In addition to foundational and missional core values, it is important to consider whether the identified values are preferred or actual values.
- Preferred Values: As the name implies, are those that are not yet apparent nor strongly expressed throughout the organization: while
- Actual Values: Are those that are practised and obvious.
For example, the Australian Royal Commission’s Report into the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Service Industry that was tabled in Parliament in February 2019 found endemic misconduct primarily motivated by greed. Telling examples were the financial abuse of clients by some institutions’ financial advisors. Sadly, one of the major financial institutions guilty of such criminal behaviour had, I understand, one of its core values as love!
The challenge is for senior leadership to discern whether the values presented by the VDT are those that the leaders believe will empower the organization’s mission into the future and fulfil its vision. Once that is finally determined the leaders’ role then is to communicate those adopted core values throughout the organization by developing the appropriate systems, processes, strategies, and symbols. (This should include an audit of current organizational systems in light of those values.) Most importantly, leaders need to personally model the behaviours that exemplify the core values in their decision-making, actions and engagement with staff and other stakeholders. By so doing all the core values, including any that are now only preferred values, hopefully will, over time, become actual values shaping culture throughout the organization. In that way the core values become a key benchmark and guide for organizational decision-making and members’ behaviour.