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August 28, 2019

Strengthen your Team with a Meaningful Core Value Exercise

Photo by Ricardo Resende on Unsplash

This article was originally published on Medium.

Keeping your team motivated and moving in the same direction is something we all want. Checking in with your team quarterly is something we all do. Caring about your team’s growth and career trajectory is something we all say we want.

A couple years ago I spent time making these ideas real, actionable, and connected. I did this through a Core Values exercise.

— Excerpt from Amber Sawaya Built A Career Around User Experience; Utah Business 40 Under 40 2019 Interview

Core Values Exercise

I came across this idea from a James Clear article: One Research-Backed Way to Effectively Manage Your Stressful and Busy Schedule

Read the article—the gist is that holding to your core values will help you navigate when times get tough. I sent this article to my team and asked them to choose 5 values from his 50+ Core Values list.

Choose 5. Yes, Exactly 5.

I asked each team member to choose their five values—and it has to be exactly five. Almost all of them went on the same emotional rollercoaster:

  • Each of them had an easy time choosing two or three values.
  • All of them had a hard time getting to five.
  • Some of them tried to sneak in a bonus sixth.

It is a challenge to whittle down your list once your easy values are chosen. Just because ‘competency’ isn’t on your core values list doesn’t mean it’s not important to you. The same with all of the other values, but that’s what makes this exercise meaningful—you have to get to exactly five.

One employee shared with me that they had a hard time with their values because they felt like they had personal, secret values, and then the values they would want to share with their boss. I encouraged them to go with their real/secret ones, assured them they could be kept confidential if desired, and that this was what is important to them, not to me. They went with the more personal one and we talked about perceptions and that it’s okay to be true to yourself and what you want out of the world and work.

Sharing Values

After we did the exercise my team decided to share their values with one another. I originally planned to keep these all confidential—but the team requested it so we all shared. The team found it extremely interesting to know what made their coworkers tick. The overlapping values were as interesting as the ones that were only on one person’s list. To give you an idea, mine are:

  • Happiness
  • Meaningful Work
  • Balance
  • Stability
  • Health

Connecting Values to Work

Ok, we’re far from done—but too many organizations stop here. Once we had identified our values and shared them and had some good conversations we connected them to what we’re doing.

We did quarterly checkpoints—long term and short term goals—and I asked each person to list their values on the document. When we’d do our quarterly check-ins I’d go through their list of values and ask:

  • Are these values still serving you?
  • How is work supporting or detracting from your values?

Pro tip: Quarterlies are great, weekly 1:1s are great — now loop them together. Once a month at their 1:1s, I’d ask my reports to review their quarterly goals, make sure they were on track, and ask if there is anything they needed help with. I’d do this the first 1:1 of the month.

Finding Ways to Support Values at Work

One story I often tell when I’m encouraging people to do a core values exercise is about one of my employees that had ‘community’ on their list. I happened to know that this person really valued community engagement and activism. I also knew they were working long hours and putting in a lot of energy to our startup.

I asked, “How can work better support your value of community?”

They replied, “I just need to find more time to write code for these community organizations.”

I asked if they had anything left in the tank when they got home. They didn’t. None of us did. This is a hard thing for designers and developers—we want to provide our particular talents in pursuit of things that are important to us. Too often though, we’re totally spent after our long work weeks. That’s okay.

I suggested that we find different ways for them to be involved. We came up with a plan together. They would occasionally take a short day Friday to volunteer (they rolled burritos for the homeless) and made sure to put important public policy meetings on their work calendar so they could make sure they attended, even if it was during work hours.


Key Takeaways

  • Read the James Clear article to get you going: http://bit.ly/2Zv1t8n
  • Choose your 5 Core Values: https://jamesclear.com/core-values
  • Optionally, share your values with your coworkers.
  • Connect those values to work.
  • Check in on how those values are serving you during Quarterlies and 1:1s.
  • Find ways for work to support values, even if it’s not the obvious way.

You can implement Core Values in your own organization, either formally as a quarterly check-in or as a workshop. This is especially valuable in remote teams where you can’t always see how people are navigating their days.

If you do this, I’d love to hear how it goes — the good, the bad, the ugly. While this worked for me, and I have a theory that it will work for you, please write and tell me how it works out in your organization.

About the author

Amber Sawaya

Amber Sawaya is a UX consultant, best-selling author, and business owner. She writes about UX everywhere, leadership, efficiency, product design, and how to run design departments and small agencies.