One exercise I do with teams is to explore shared values about how they want to work. The challenge is to unearth values that are inherent in the culture and values that the team aspires to – but with language that they recognize, will remember, and use.
Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, did just this. After six years of running the company, he took a year and emailed all the employees several times to ask what they thought their core values should be.
“The problem is that they’re usually very lofty sounding and they read like a press release that the marketing department puts out. …We wanted a list of committable core values that we were willing to hire and fire on.” Tony Hsieh, HBR 5/24/10
They came up with ten Core Values, including “Deliver WOW through Service,” “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness,” and “Be Humble.”
A Congressional office I worked with recently talked about “radical hospitality”, a term they articulated as a core value at their first retreat five years ago. This year a new employee told a story that illustrated that value. He was in one of the local offices when a woman raced in, wild eyed, sweating, and her hair sticking up. She asked to use the bathroom. He hesitated as he saw his colleague reach for a button they have to alert help. But he said to her, yes, you may. When she emerged from the bathroom, she explained that her husband had abused her for a decade, today she had decided to leave, and that this was first place she came to. The tag line to radical hospitality then became, “Yes, you can use the bathroom.”
When I worked with a senior team from a regional environmental nonprofit, they discussed an argument online that had gotten ugly. Someone said that the disagreement should then have been handled right away and in person. “Just pick up the phone” became one of their operating principles.
Accessible and down-to-earth values language, emanating from the team itself, and told with humor and sometimes drama, are the kind of values are used, passed on, and hopefully inspire.