A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
Defining corporate values is more about archaeology than architecture. In other words, the task is not to build them from the ground up but to uncover the values that are already there—the values that are currently being used across your organization to guide employee actions and decisions every day.
A typical corporate approach to creating new values or evolving existing ones is to get some of the executive leadership in a room and have them come up with a list of values. At Tribe, we’ve worked on values initiatives with many organizations over the years and, in our experience, this approach often results in a long list of generic values in an attempt not to leave anything out.
Uncovering The Unique Ideals Of Your Culture
To get to the values that really drive the culture, you must first brush away all those perfectly good values that cloud the picture. That involves the hard work of deleting many from the list, in favor of the handful of principles that are both prevalent in your culture and somewhat unique to the organization.
Although the conversation might begin by having leadership suggest the values that they want the company to stand for, the real test of what’s real lies with employees. They intuitively know the principles that are adhered to in their organization.
Over the years, we’ve used a variety of methods to involve employees in honing the list of values. Here are three that we’ve found yield meaningful results:
1. Index Cards In Small Groups
One low-tech but effective method is to write each potential value on an index card (or sticky note). If we’re starting with a list of leadership-generated values, we create a card for each of those. If we’re casting a wider net, we’ll invite employees to suggest values they believe are true for the company.
In a series of small groups with 10-12 employees each, we’ll ask them to arrange the cards on a conference table or stick them to a wall. Then we’ll ask them to work together to move the values that are must-haves to the top. As they begin to eliminate the values that are less crucial to include, we turn those cards over to the blank side.
We find it helpful to make this a physical session, with employees moving around the room and passing the cards back and forth as they arrange them. Somehow it engages them more fully in the discussion—which often results in a spirited debate.
After 10 or 15 minutes, they generally can narrow the list to four or five values. Often, they’ll find that there’s overlap or duplication in concepts so that several potential values can be summed up in one word or phrase.
When we look at those short lists across several groups, there’s usually a fairly consistent set that appears across the organization. We take those back to the leadership team, and they may tweak the list a bit before arriving at a final collection of values.
2. Employee Video Interviews
We’ll most often shoot these interviews at an employee event or some occasion where we’ll find a broad cross section of people to contribute. Our camera operator and interviewer will roam the crowd, inviting employees to participate, one or two at a time.
Rather than just ask employees to name the values, we’ll often come about it in a more indirect way. The interviewer may ask the employees to describe what the people at this company are like or to talk about the culture and how people treat each other, their clients or customers, and their vendors. We might ask what they appreciate the most about the management style of leadership or the working relationships with their peers.
The results provide great clues to what the real values of the company are. We sometimes edit this footage to be shown later at the values launch to demonstrate how the values sprang from what employees told us is true about the culture.
3. Guided Visualization
Not every culture is game for group meditation, but we did this once with a flooring manufacturer, traveling from corporate offices to manufacturing facilities to sales centers to include a wide cross section of employees.
We led several groups of employees and executive leadership, ranging from 20 to 100 people per session, in a meditation with a Joseph Campbell-inspired story of a hero’s journey. The hero was the brand name. As he armed himself, as he battled dragons and as he returned victorious with a pile of gold, we asked employees to imagine what each of these metaphors symbolized for the brand. At the end of the meditation, we asked them to picture this hero’s story being passed down from generation to generation. What, we asked, is the moral of this story?
From the CEO to sales reps to forklift operators, one phrase recurred repeatedly and in every single group: This hero “does the right thing,” they said. When we asked them what that meant in terms of their brand, they gave example after example from the company’s history and present-day business. This was a remarkable instance of a culture being aligned around one powerful value.
The People Who Live And Breathe Your Culture
You might find that one of these methods works well for your organization or you might have ideas for other ways to engage your employees in the process of articulating your values. Employees are the ones who live and breathe the culture every day, so however you involve them, they provide a rich source of intelligence on what values are really being used day to day in your company. Including a representative spectrum of employees in the process of defining the values also raises the employees’ stake in putting those values to use.