Having a team that is aligned on a set of core values is very important to have a healthy and productive environment.
Our actions define what we value
Let me share a typical parenting concern: parents want their children to be polite. Children should say please and thank you. It would go like this:
Child: Daddy, can you get me some water?
Dad: Ham… what’s the magic word?
Child: Pleaassseeeeee :)
Dad: Here you go sweety.
I started to notice that my daughters would always say thank you, but would rarely say please. At first I was puzzled but then I understood why it happened. The thing is: we, the parents, always say thank you but we never say please. And I understand why. I’m at my home, with my loved ones, I don’t feel the need to ask saying please. Nor I feel the need to hear a please. However, I do feel the need to say thank you. So our daughters are actually mimicking us.
And if we really want to change this, we really need to start by changing the way we communicate and lead by example.
Gathering current values
I’ve seen companies and teams gathering around to decide on what their values should be. I don’t believe this to be very efficient. Because when we are with this mindset we dream high and start talking about that standard good looking values that everyone wants.
I believe the best starting point is to have a candid discussion about what are our current values. We need to be honest here. What values are defined by our actions and habits? After having this list we can make choices: are there values that we need to add or change?
Changing or adding values
Changing or adding values is not easy. It’s about changing and making new habits and we, people, aren’t good at that. This needs to be seen as a journey. We need to have a vision of where we want to be, and make a plan to get there.
Some companies go for the decree plan. The values will be announced somehow and let’s hope for the best. Note that having the values somewhere with a proper description is a very good thing. It’s a good starting point. But actually making the shift is much harder. For example:
- How will we measure the success of each habit and know that we’re following it?
- How will we change our recruitment process to account for our values?
We need to be aligned on values
When we have a company or a team with a clear set of values we have a boost in productivity. Because the values help us on making decisions faster. If we have people with clashing values we’ll always have never ending discussions.
On the other end, if we know that our coworkers share our values, our habits, and a common vision, we start to trust their work. We don’t feel the need to overlook everything, we’ll just need to have context on what they’re doing and what they want to accomplish.
Clashing or vanity values
A common value that I see that always looks good is transparency. Honestly being transparent is very hard. Some companies share a lot of information and because of that believe they have a transparent culture. But transparency is not about communicating a lot, it’s about communicating everything. Specially what you don’t want to.
I don’t believe this to be practical. I know that there are always hard problems to solve. I’d rather have trust that issues are handled with honesty and following our core values.
Growing versus retaining
Do we value new users? Or do we value our current users? These can be clashing values that will slow us down. It’s more polite to say we value everything. But that ends up not being the case. We may have some resources allocated with building things to gain new customers, but we won’t have resources to support new customers. We start to have a roadmap that is not clear and focused.
Customers first versus employees first
These may be clashing directions. Again, it’s easy to be abstract here and say we value both things. But when we’re at a conflict we’ll see what’s valued the most. This may generate recognition problems.
Selling our core values
I think this is the ultimate core value test. When you have business/revenue ready to be taken, but for that you’ll need to make a shortcut or completely ignore core values or the company mission.
- We may value doing the best for the customer, but we may offer something that is not the best for the customer, but generates more revenue for us
- We may target a specific niche of customers, but then open the doors for other types of clashing customers because of revenue
- We value our employees the most, but we may burn them out to please a customer
There are no bad values
We just need to be aligned. We may focus on revenue first because that’s what we need or what we like. So that may value hard work, fast growth and customer first.
And we could also go for smart work, sustainable growth, employees first and quality.
I don’t believe there’s a best set of values. It all depends on the people following them. I do believe that is very damaging to have people with clashing sets of values. This will generate conflict, lack of trust, overall slowness and people leaving the team/company.
This is why it’s so important to hire for a cultural fit. Hiring someone that is top notch but with clashing values may be a disaster.
How to set values
I’ve heard somewhere the following:
Leading by example is not a way to lead, it’s the only one.
It will not work if we set a list of values on the wall, but then the leadership doesn’t follow them. This will cause frustration and confusion. We need to have our leading people (C-levels, managers, directors) aligned on a set of values and following them. Because at the end of the day, the values that we follow aren’t those on the wall, but rather the ones defined by our actions.
We should be able to tell what team/company values are just by how they work and what they do. That’s the ultimate challenge. If we need new values or want to change new values, then the best approach is to have our leaders starting to change their actions to be aligned with those values.
As an example, here’s a list of things that I do or follow:
- Sometimes I’m the first of my team to leave the office
- I am very clear when I need to stay home because of my daughters and that it will impact my productivity on that day
- I like to do exercise and often pick on my team members to follow me
- Before doing things, I create a decision document and ask for feedback from everyone
- If someone wants to follow a path that I see not as the best one, but is very committed to that path, I’ll step back and help
- I read a lot of books and nag my teammates to also do that
- I have ownership on everything that goes wrong. But I don’t believe that any problem is someone’s responsibility, it’s always the team responsibility
- When I deliver code, I aim to write good commit messages, documentation and have a good test coverage
- When I fix a bug, I try to go for the root cause even if that takes longer
- I always push for best practices, but sometimes I do compromise if needed
So by reading this list you’ll have a grasp of what I’m about and about what I value. These would be my personal values and habits. I could be on a company with other clashing values and I would sustain that for some time. But I would not be at my best.
Because changing values is not that easy. It takes time and commitment and we actually may not like the change.
Author Pedro Pereira Santos
License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0