By Travis Marsh

“Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do.”

—Elvis Presley

As we explored in Lead Together, values are alive within each of us and our teams, whether we identify and verbalize them or not. Values reflect our beliefs and motivations, and they are relative to each person, not universally held. They provide the framework for how we interpret and interact with the world: what’s important, what’s possible, what’s dangerous.

According to Jackie Le Fevre of values consultancy Magma Effect, values lie deep within the unconscious:

“Values are energy-laden ideas that sit in the limbic area of the brain where there is no language. The limbic functions in terms of what it feels rather than what it ‘thinks’ or ‘knows.’ Together, our beliefs and values function as a kind of background operating system. This gives us an internal autopilot sense of how the world works and where we fit in, enabling us to develop our own shorthand ways of navigating everyday events.”

One of the first realizations when moving decisions from one person to a group is that in traditional, top-down decision making, the articulation of what’s important comes from just one person at “the top”—whether that is the founder or CEO—. We use their values as the values of the organization.

If we want to distribute authority to a team, we need to find a way to articulate the values of that team. This is valuable on any collective but essential for those without a defined leader, such as self-managing teams and most cross-functional teams. Values offer an anchor for making decisions as well as guideposts for how we interact with each other.

If you’re a new team and most people don’t have previous experience working with the other members, realize that any values you create are, at best, aspirations. Since values live in our limbic area, which is separate from the part of the brain that hosts language, any words we use to define values will be rough approximations of those real values. These approximations congeal to a truly shared understanding when you have shared experiences of the values in action.

Let’s look at an example of how aspirations grew and changed into lived values at Dream See Do. DSD is an experiential online learning platform founded 4 years ago by Josh and Jeremy. When Jeremy and Josh first got together, they created a set of aspirations for how they would want to work together. Here were their initial values—as you can see, they were quite broad and intentionally expansive as to not ‘miss anything’ at first—:

  • Personal growth through self-inventory, reflection, and perseverance.

    • Integrity and personal accountability: taking the initiative, being resourceful, and being reliable.

    • Uber-creativity and inventiveness in all that we do.

  • The 4 E’s (exploration, expression, experimentation, and encouragement).

    • The 5th E (execution): creativity in action—getting shit done.

  • Holistic lifestyle leading to balance and equilibrium.

    • Mindful practice in life and work, healthy living, and breathing room to make discoveries, test theories, have personal time to enjoy life, and give the mind a chance to replenish.

  • Love, being heart-centered, nurtured with open communication and encouragement.

    • Authentic leadership.

    • You can give love to challenges.

  • Diversity and accessibility.

One of the initial aspirations was personal growth through self-inventory, reflection, and perseverance. This made sense in the early days because personal growth and reflection was a core tenant of the DSD software platform. That specific aspiration melted over time and was no longer the most important at a group level. That doesn’t mean that Josh, Jeremy, and the team don’t still deeply believe in personal growth. They do. It just means that this is not the most critical value to name for the team. It’s not the value that is needed to help guide decisions and aspirations. Their current values are:

  • Empathy and communication.

  • Adaptability and resourcefulness.

  • Commitment and reliability paired with consistent follow-through.

  • Being heartfelt, holistic, inclusive, and conscientious.

  • Creativity and experimentation.

And this comes to the most important part of values. If you’re not using them to make decisions, then collective values won’t help you nearly as much as they could.

Are your values helping you?

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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