Defining Your Values: Some Exercises

boat on calm water
Deserters Islands, BC

It takes time to become accustomed to values-based thinking.

This is part two of a two-part article on organizational values in the heritage sector. Part one is here. 

A values exercise is a way of defining your ethical approach to the prickly, unpleasant issues that are likely to rear their heads in the future. Your values become your moral compass and the pillars of your daily practice. They will guide your branding, your strategic planning, your staff recruitment, your training, all of your programs, and every decision you make.

Values Exercises

  1. In pairs, describe some of the fundamental qualities of character that you expect from your fellow board members or fellow staff members. “I rely on my colleagues to be…. at all times.” IE professional, an active listener, committed to our mission, collaborative, thorough, dependable, present…
  2. (Activities 2 and 3 can run concurrently in separate rooms) For management and board: How do you want your former staff to talk about your organization when they have moved on? Write five to ten adjectives you hope they might use. IE “Supportive. Risk-taking. Inspiring. Compassionate. Nurturing. Exacting. Professional.”
  3. For staff (without management and board present): Think of the last time you felt frustrated or disturbed by a decision from your management or board. Without revealing confidential details of the situation, can you articulate which of your values you felt was transgressed? Can you describe in a positive way how your organization could demonstrate leadership by  upholding that value in the future? IE, “We must create an environment where everyone has work-life balance.” “All voices are important. All ideas are worthy of genuine consideration.”
  4. Working as a plenary group, describe your organization’s commitment to fiscal sustainability. What are some of the hallmarks of that commitment? What are the pillars of your fiscal practice? IE “We are proud to exceed legislated expectations for fiscal auditing and reporting.” “We make all expenditures within a comfortable, debt-free financial margin.”
  5. In small groups, describe your organization’s relationship with your community. Complete the following: “In all our dealings with each other, our community can depend on us to be…” IE: accountable, available, inclusive, consultative, honest, forthright.
  6. In a large group, describe your organization’s commitment to the environment. What are the concrete indications that you uphold environmental values, or are commitment to environmental sustainability? What are some of your achievements here, in the last (or next) few years? IE “We evaluate every decision we make for its impact on the environment.” “We have improved environmental indicator X over the last five years, and are committed to continue…”
  7. Working in small groups, describe the values that are implicit in your mission and vision statements, but haven’t been stated yet in this workshop. Is it clear to you which values you must uphold in order to successfully execute your mission? IE “To achieve this mission will require perseverance, passion, collaboration, fiscal discipline, accountability.” “To achieve our mission, the long-term integrity of our park/historic site must be without compromise.” “To achieve our mission, we must be outspoken, proactive, scientifically credible, intellectually rigorous, thorough, vigilant, diplomatic, courageous…” Be specific. Work past the generic values that all organizations of integrity share; concentrate on the values that your organization must uphold in order to achieve your vision.

Summing Up

Working together, draft a full list of the values articulated through the above exercises, and rank them from most important to least important (acknowledging that all are, in fact, important.)

A suggested method: write all values in large format and attach these to the wall of your working space. Make sure there are no duplications (this is crucial: amalgamate near-duplications into a single value, to avoid vote-splitting. This can be a delicate exercise in itself, and may require some careful facilitation and negotiation.) Give each participant six sticky-dots and ask them to affix these to their six most important values. (You may assign each more than six—equally of course— if there is a very large number of values articulated.) Participants may attach more than one dot to a single value if it is very important to them. Record the results from most valued to least, without eliminating any from your final list.

In the days immediately following the workshop, the facilitator should draft a values statement or credo and circulate it to all participants for comments.

Consider two forms of the values document: a values summary, crafted for your public, that will figure prominently on your website, on your annual reports, and other pertinent documents. For internal readers, compose a more comprehensive credo which captures the sense of the discussions and conclusions from your values exercise. Ensure that there are no discrepancies between the two documents.

An example of a public values summary:

Our Core Values

We will surprise and delight our visitors through unique, dynamic and varied experiences. 

We work in partnership with First Nations, local communities and businesses to help create a strong, sustainable regional environment. 

We will be relevant and accessible to Canadians of all ages, abilities and cultures. 

The ecological and commemorative integrity of our resource is without compromise. 

We will empower our staff to fulfill their roles as professionals.

Another suggestion: for the first year of your values statement’s existence, consider it a living document. Call it Values 1.0, and encourage your people to think of ways to improve it. It takes time to become accustomed to values-based thinking. As your staff and board continue through their duties over the course of the year, they may encounter situations and lessons that they had never recognized as being values-based before. Encourage them to put their thoughts in writing for inclusion in Values 2.0 next year.

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