Developing Clarity Around Your Core Values: Tools & Resources

James D. Ludema & Amber A. Johnson Culture, Leadership, Values, Values-Driven Leaders

Values map fo creativityIn business, it is easy to speak the same language and still need a translator. The problem isn’t that the words aren’t understood; it’s that the underlying meaning is missed.

Dr. Richard Boyatzis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of Resonant Leadership, shares a perfect illustration of this. He tells the story of being in a classroom of executives working on their MBAs. Two men in the group, both leaders in their 40s, identified “family values” as being important.

Boyatzis asked each what they meant by “family values.” One man said it meant he was home every night for dinner. He’d turned down a promotion because it would have meant relocating his children. The other man said it meant he worked long hours, traveling constantly, so his wife and children had everything they wanted and needed.

Two men, the same value, very different meanings.

Consider another example, an organization that has “transparency” as one of its values. What does it really mean to be transparent? Should you be fully transparent with everyone, internally and externally, about everything all the time, or are some people and topics off limits in certain circumstances? Where do you draw the line between good transparency and bad transparency, and what standards do you want to set for yourself and your organization?

Getting Clear about Meaning

How do you make sure that you and your colleagues are all on the same page when it comes to core values? Here are two steps you can take:

1. Ask the right questions, all the time.

Job candidates at BerylHealth are asked to “Define compassion,” a value the company believes is essential for successful employees. If the candidate can’t express a clear understanding of compassion, they won’t fit within the organization. 

Clarifying questions around an organization’s values aren’t helpful just in hiring. Imagine a fictional company, Origami Carton & Crate, has identified a competitor it may want to acquire, but doing so will put a great burden on the existing team to work harder in the coming months. This may challenge the core values of “respect” and “excellence.” On one hand, the acquisition will support respect and excellence by leading to new organizational capacity, increasing profitability, and offering new advancement opportunities for OCC’s people. On the other hand, it may stretch people too thin or risk damage to existing relationships with clients, eroding both respect and excellence.

Asking, “What does it mean for us to pursue respect and excellence in this circumstance?” will offer new insights, create alignment among OCC’s people, strengthen the culture, and provide guidance on whether the acquisition is the right thing to do.

Below we introduce you to one of the best exercises we know of for developing clarity around core values, creating a map of each values’ meaning.

2. Map Your Meaning.

One of the clearest ways to make sure all team members have the same understanding of your core values is to “map” what you mean by them. 

To get started, at a staff retreat or meeting, write the name of one value in the center of a whiteboard or flip chart. Ask, “When we say TRANSPARENCY, what do we mean?” Surround the value with the responses you receive.

As participants grow quiet, ask them to think about their responses again from the perspective of customers or clients, from the community, from others within the organization. Ask them to consider role-specific applications of the value. For example, What does it mean to be transparent with financials? How does that differ from being transparent with strategic plans or internal communications?

Whenever possible, ask people to elaborate on their responses and write down key words or phrases. Make special note of the language your team members use to describe a specific value. Pause to allow time for story-telling as an illustration of the core values.

In the end, you’ll have a full white board of meaning around the value, with little ambiguity.

Do this for each of your values. You and your fellow leaders will walk away with a sense of pride in your organization as well as a clear understanding of the shared meaning of the values and guidelines for action.

FREE DOWNLOADABLE RESOURCE: The fictional company Origami Carton & Crate, might map their value of creativity as you see in the image at the top of this post. In this example, we’ve used our free Map Your Meaning worksheet, which you can download at

MVM 3D image book stack cropFor more ideas and research on how to make your values clear and meaningful, download our e-book at

Jim Ludema, Ph.D., and Amber Johnson, M.A., are the authors of Making Values Meaningful: A Menu of Options for Senior Leaders. This e-book is available for free download at

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