Three foolproof ways to uncover your organisation’s true values

Values matter. They inform a sense of organisational identity, help set behavioural standards, and infuse the customer experience. According to an authoritative Right Management survey of 28,000 employees across 15 countries, commitment to an organisation’s core values is the primary driver of employee engagement.

Whether or not they are written down, your organisation has a set of values. They influence a large amount of what gets done and why, from overall strategy to day-to-day management. The challenge is that they can feel difficult to capture. This can lead to declared values pulling apart from actual values, which undermines both the credibility of leaders and the organisation’s ability to develop.

Workshops rarely help solve this problem, for the simple reason that the meeting mode is more suited to creative thinking than deep reflection. Outsourcing the issue to an agency or consultancy divorces it from cultural reality: third parties simply aren’t close enough to a business to intuit those kinds of fundamentals.

The answers always lie within. Finding them is just a matter of digging in the right ways with the right tools. Here are three little-known hacks that will help you get the job done – fast.

Check the exits

Outside of gross misconduct, organisations tend to fire people primarily for one thing: values violations. A business that parts company with someone for being rude to customers might value courtesy. A business that releases an employee for being insufficient skilled at handling a client’s politics might value emotional intelligence. And so on.

Ask “what were the main reasons that we let people go last year?”. You might be surprised at what this question reveals. For example, if you value teamwork, your organisation might be in the habit of parting company with lone wolves – even the highly capable ones. The challenge is to look beyond the surface reasons for severance and spot the values-related patterns.

Count the cost

By definition, your values are worth something to you. Pushing this point to its logical conclusion, if your values have never cost your organisation anything, it may be worth questioning if they are in fact your values at all. You do not care that much for a state of being that you have expended zero time, energy or money to enhance.

So a useful way of determining your organisation’s true values is to ask “what have we invested in achieving?”. To put it another way: “what did we sacrifice to get here?”. If the answer was, say, walking away from a quick buck, you might value integrity or the long-term view. If the answer was setting aside another business idea or route to market, you might value focus or simplicity.

Do opposites attract?

A useful way of checking if your values genuinely reflect your organisation’s unique qualities is to analyse whether any organisation could credibly lay claim to their opposites. If the answer is no, you might have fallen into the trap of identifying the lowest common denominator rather than your own unique, powerful behavioural drivers. This is the hurdle at which magnolia values such as “trustworthiness” and “reliability” tend to fall.

To revisit some of the examples above, it is possible for a firm to value the opposite of team-work (individualism), focus (diversity), integrity (profiteering) and the long-term view (opportunism).

As you undertake these exercises, you might be challenged as to whether the values that your organisation has embraced are healthy or advisable. An uncomfortable aspect of this kind of work is that it can reveal values that are true but also counterproductive for your business, unsustainable for your people – and even ethically questionable.

How you choose to deal with any such discoveries will reflect your own values as a leader – your honesty, courage and integrity. That, you might say, is the ultimate challenge with values: like death or taxes, they always catch up with us. But, unlike those other inevitabilities, they also represent an amazing opportunity to shine.

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