How to Develop and Use Core Values

Formally articulating the values you expect all staffers to live up can send strong messages about how people should approach their work. Here’s how to develop effective core values and make them a living part of your work. 

Principles for developing effective core values

Different organizations approach core value setting differently, and there’s no one “right” way to go about discovering and codifying them. That said, our experience and the wisdom and research of experts in this field suggests that it’s helpful to keep in mind these principles:

  • Core values should represent who you are at your best. That means they shouldn’t be purely aspirational, but should genuinely describe what your organization is like on its best day.
  • Core values should be differentiating. After all, “dress professionally” and “be punctual” might describe how your staff operates, but they may not capture something especially distinct about you. Ask yourself this: if someone spent a week in your office observing your team and later said, “Wow – they’re really unusually X,” what would X be?
  • The leaders of the organization should be true exemplars of your core values. The way they naturally operate should align very closely with the organization’s values.
  • There isn’t one set of “great” values. As researcher and author Jim Collins notes, “What we have found is that what really matters is that you actually have core values – not what they are.”
  • Core values can serve as a North Star when decisions are hard or under challenging circumstances. They should help you figure out the right thing to do or the right way to act.
  • The time spent drafting values should pale in comparison to the time spent teaching and reinforcing them. Many organizations have values but don’t put in the time required to teach, live, and reinforce them regularly, thereby rendering them largely useless. If you only do one thing with your values, make sure to weave an assessment of how staff members demonstrate your values into your performance evaluation system, as we do here. (Find more ideas on bringing your values to life below.)

Suggested Resources

Making core values come to life once you have them

  • Create an addendum to your core values with definitions to clarify any potential misconceptions people might have. Some organizations do this by writing a document that includes (1) the name of the value, (2) a definition of what it means to your organization, and (3) examples of the ways the value plays out in practice. For instance:
Value By which we mean… And which leads us to do things like…
Positivity We approach our work and each other with optimism, openness and a generous spirit. When we’re brainstorming ideas we begin by identifying the good in others’ ideas before critiquing them
  • Set aside time in leadership team meeting/staff meeting agendas to reflect on the core values. Topics or prompts might include things like:
    1. To what extent are we living up to our core values? Where are we succeeding and why? Where are we not and why?
    2. Are we finding tensions between the values? How are we navigating that tension? (Discuss examples.)
    3. Taking one value, what are some actions your colleagues have taken over the course of the past month that bring the true meaning of this value to life?
  • In onboarding of new staff, facilitate a session designed to help new staff internalize the core values. Many organizations have their CEOs/EDs lead these sessions, which sends a powerful message about their importance to the organization.
  • In recognizing staff, consider having core values awards where staff nominate one another and the leadership team selects one staff member to honor per value.
  • Create visuals to display in key areas that include the values and their descriptions.
  • Send core values to prospective staff members as part of the hiring process and ask questions to assess values fit (“tell me about a time you feel like you demonstrated our value of Positivity”) .
  • Include the core values in performance evaluations (as in our sample here) and role expectations
  • Create a video of staff exemplars of your values describing them with their own words and stories; use this with prospective and new staff to help them internalize the values and send a signal about their importance to the organization.