How to Define Organizational Values in Your Workplace

Excerpt from The Culture Question:

We find Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage particularly insightful, and much of what we write here is inspired by his ideas.4

In our work with clients around defining values, we focus on the following two categories:

  • DNA values: Values that make an organization fundamentally unique.
  • Target values: Values that an organization wishes were true, but they are still working to achieve.

At the heart of every organization lies its DNA values. When an organization understands its DNA values, it knows without a doubt what actions and behaviors make it unique in the world. These values define what the organization is like. They provide clarity for decision making and action. They show the organization and the individuals in it how they should do what they do in pursuit of their purpose.

The problem is that some organizations only have a vague understanding of what their DNA values actually are. They instead often define their values by what they think they ought to be like, what they believe their customers want to see in them, or how they want to be seen – which are really their target values. This frequently results in a long list of values that are difficult to remember and fail to provide useful guidance to employees.

Writing value statements in this way inevitably leads to an uninformative list that is about as interesting as pasta without sauce. Consider values like “customer-service focused,” “integrity,” and “excellence.” Have you ever seen values like these proudly posted on an organization’s walls? We certainly have. When we see them, we ask ourselves, “Where’s the sauce?”

Values words or phrases like “customer-service focused,” “integrity,” and “excellence” mean very little without context. These are the sorts of values that any reader would assume your organization would and should have. Posting assumed values is akin to promising “to tell the truth,” which might imply that you haven’t done that in the past. We usually assume people are telling the truth, and they shouldn’t have to assert it. Generic values are the same – you shouldn’t have to state them in the first place.

When an organization wants to articulate its DNA values, it must look beyond what anyone would assume to be true and instead search for what makes it distinctive from others that provide the same or similar services. This search must be grounded in behaviors – the positive behaviors that are most valued by the people within the organization.

Try using the following questions as you work to identify your DNA values. When working to develop value statements, be sure to keep them succinct. As you answer these questions, don’t worry about how the answers would sound in an advertisement or on your website – this is not an exercise in marketing!

  • When your organization is at its best, what behaviors do you see?
  • Which behaviors are so important that you would ask an employee to leave if they didn’t live them out?
  • Which behaviors are so important that you wouldn’t apologize for them even if a potential client or customer didn’t like them?

At ACHIEVE, we have learned that the answers to these questions are normally gritty and unpolished to begin with. This is okay – and even desirable. Searching for DNA values is like a quest for truth. The quest for truth means discarding polish in favor of raw material, and you often have to dig deep to mine for it. Organizations need to express themselves in ways that are fundamentally true, which means choosing language based on accuracy, not marketing potential.

As we worked to define our values, staff kept saying things like, “We live our workshop content.” A phrase like this certainly wouldn’t mean much to someone outside of our organization, but we knew what it meant. Eventually, someone said, “We practice what we teach,” and that stuck for us. Now, when we want to describe that DNA value in shorthand, we use the word “embody.” This value means a great deal to us – so much so that we hire for its presence and would fire for its absence.

In the pursuit of your DNA values, watch out for “target values.” Target values are those that you wish were true of your organization, but which may not be true yet. For instance, we recently worked with a not-for-profit organization that said one of their DNA values was “Everybody is welcome.” However, when we asked them who might not feel welcome, the group easily came up with several demographics who weren’t represented in the people they served.

They realized in answering our question that “Everybody is welcome” was actually a target value and not yet fully realized. They decided that they needed to do further work in order to make their space more welcoming to several unrepresented groups. They kept “Everybody is welcome” as a target value in recognition that they would need to put effort into making it a reality.

When helping organizations crystalize their DNA and target values, we ask them to pay attention as well to values that show up unintentionally and may be undesirable. In the process of clarifying their values, some organizations look at themselves and discover that all their staff have a university degree or are from one ethnic or cultural background. Embodied traits like these suggest that these organizations might unintentionally value certain demographics over others. Such values should be named and assessed, and they should often be replaced with target values.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Randy Grieser

Founder & Advisor

Eric Stutzman

Chief Executive Officer

Wendy Loewen

Managing Director

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The authors are four members of ACHIEVE’s leadership team – Randy, Eric, Wendy, and Mike. The book is available now.

Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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