Lesson 4.3

Getting Group Values Right

Dive into this topic via the key explanations and exercises below.


Key Concepts:

  • One of the trickiest topics in group culture research is that of “values.”

    • Values are what you prize over other things.

    • Valuing things that lead to a culture—i.e. that allow people to be and contribute who they are rather than conform—can be very powerful.

    • Valuing things that lead to a cult—i.e. that encourage people to conform to particular ways of thinking—can create superficial unity that encourages organizational silence (see Lessons 2.1 and 2.2) and gets in the way of good decisions.

    • People with different ways of thinking are likely to have different personal values.

    • If we say we want cognitive diversity, then we can’t force people to value things that step on their own values.

    • That means we need to stick to values that are inclusive, less prescriptive and more universally principle-based.

    • But for values to be motivating at all, they can’t be the same as everyone else’s. This creates a bit of a dilemma if we’re trying to rely on values to inspire a group.

  • Most organizations run into one or more of the following challenges when it comes to values:

  • Values Challenge 1:

    • Many organizations’ values are essentially a “wishlist” of behaviors and principles that they hope their people will strive for.

    • This doesn’t motivate people if those behaviors and values are not inspiring or authentic.

    • Further, valuing behaviors often leads to conformity.

    • It’s much more useful to value a group’s purpose, or reason for being, and letting behaviors flow from that.

    • Allowing people to use Wisdom rather than prescribing exactly how to think is a more sure formula for great culture.

  • Values Challenge 2:

    • Many organizations conflate lists of virtues, attributes, skills, behaviors, people, and purpose all together when they talk about their values.

    • This makes values confusing—like comparing apples and oranges.

    • This also makes it difficult to reconcile dilemmas when two values conflict. E.g. What do you do when valuing “customers” conflicts with valuing “moving fast” or “integrity”?

    • The fewer “values” that a group prioritizes, the better for memorability, inspiration, and for resolving dilemmas.

  • Values Challenge 3:

    • The kinds of attributes and virtues that lead to great cultures are things that help every group. Attributes that don’t help every group become problematic when they’re emphasized too much.

    • Anything that’s a virtue—e.g. integrity or kindness or wisdom—is helpful to any culture, and should almost go without saying.

    • Anything that fits into the first three parts of this course—cognitive diversity, cognitive friction, and intellectual humility—is helpful to a culture, and should almost go without saying as well.

    • Further, emphasizing that you value the kinds of attributes that work for every group makes it hard to stand out as a culture.

      • E.g. Most Fortune 500 companies list “integrity” as one of their values. The fact that almost everybody values “integrity” makes “integrity” less motivating, and less of a way to bond a group together—even though we need integrity.

    • The thing that makes a great group different shouldn’t be that its members have good attributes.

  • Values should focus on what makes your team unique—or else they’re a waste of effort

    • Two things can make a great culture unique:

  1. The group’s unique purpose

  2. Ideals that are rarely found or aspired to in other similar groups—so long as they are inclusive and universally good moral virtues.

  • For example, at the time this course was created, Stance apparel (one of my favorite companies) lists on its About Us page, “We exist to celebrate human originality.” This is a fantastically clear statement of the group’s purpose.

  • Stance then lists Entrepreneurship, Creativity, Performance, Personal Responsibility, and Gratitude as its principles “we live by.” These are essentially core values, and each of them is a synonym for a universally good moral virtue. (These are never bad things!) They are certainly helpful for reminding people to make good decisions, and it would be hard to use them as a way to exclude someone for being different.

  • Because they are uncommon virtues to emphasize for an apparel company, they are probably somewhat motivating to employees. However, the company’s purpose is much more inspiring.

  • Many companies that have inspired employees and customers believe their core values are doing the trick, when in fact their strong purpose is responsible.

Practice This:

  • Pick an organization that lists its “core values” online. Then ask each of the following questions about each value on the list:

  • Is this value pretty unique to this organization?

  • Which is this value: a trait/virtue, a skill, a behavior, an idea, a person/people, or a principle?

  • Does this value obviously conflict with another value on the organization’s list of values?

  • Is there any scenario you can think of where picking this value above all else could be a catastrophic choice?

  • Does this value potentially hamper different ways of thinking that might be helpful to the organization at some point?

  • Would you be motivated by this core value if you worked at this organization?

  • Think about an organization you belong to. Then ask each of the following questions:

    • What is the thing that the people of this organization are devoted to in common?

    • What is the “purpose” of this organization?

    • What personal values do you have in your life that could help you contribute toward this organization’s purpose?