How to Develop and Use Core Values

Last updated: October 28, 2021
Estimated reading time: 3 min


Articulating and aligning on core values is one of the most important tasks of a leader. Values describe how you aspire to operate. They help guide your approach to your work and relationships. They are a critical part of building a strong organizational and team culture.

5 Guiding Principles for Core Values

There’s no one “right” way to go about discovering and codifying your values, but here are some guiding principles for developing core values:

1. They should guide and ground.

Your values should serve as both the foundation for how you approach your work and relationships and a North Star when you’re confronting difficult decisions or circumstances.

2. They should represent who you are (or want to be) at your best.

Like goals, your values should be both ambitious and realistic. They should push you and your team to create the culture that you aspire to while being honest about where you are.

3. They should set you apart.

Your values, when lived out, should set you apart from other teams and organizations. Ask yourself this: if someone spent a week observing your team and later said, “Wow—they’re unusually X,” or “I’ve never been in an organization that cares so much about Y,” what would X and Y be?

4. They should be defined.

Core values are just words on a page if you’re not clear on what they mean for your organization. For example, is your value of “collaboration” about practicing interdependence, mutual support, and collective problem-solving? Or does it mean that you care deeply about partnering with and involving stakeholders in your programs? Again, there’s no right answer (and in this case, it might be both!), but the more explicit you are about what the value looks like for your organization, the more aligned your team will be.

5. They should advance equity, inclusion, and belonging.

When defining your values, consider being explicit about the ways you aim to disrupt—rather than reinforce—systems of oppression and their impacts. For example, at TMC, we value being “unusually helpful and supportive.” For us, this looks like: 1) being deeply on the side of our clients, including by saying the things that may be hard to hear—such as pointing out when we see bias, racism, and other forms of oppression showing up; and 2) being supportive and considerate of our colleagues, especially across racial and positional differences. Before we defined “helpfulness” like this, this value was closer to “be as helpful to clients as possible.” Because of how implicit bias plays out, this value created uneven expectations for staff depending on their identities and roles (i.e., junior staff, women and TGNC people, and BIPOC felt the burden of “helpfulness” more than others).

Embedding core values in day-to-day work

  • When making big or difficult decisions, ask yourself: “What values am I using to guide this decision?”
  • Periodically reflect on your core values in team meetings. Topics or prompts might include things like:
    • In what ways are we living up to or demonstrating our core values?
    • In what ways could we do better at living up to our core values?
    • Are we finding tensions between the values? How are we navigating those tensions?
    • What are some ways that you’ve seen your manager, staff, or colleagues bringing our values to life?
  • Send core values to candidates as part of the hiring process and ask questions to assess values alignment (“One of our core values is X. Can you tell us about a time when you…”).
  • Share and discuss core values when onboarding new staff.
  • Include core values in performance evaluations and role expectations.

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