Values can drive great performance — but only if you know how: Here’s how

Mike Zeidler
6 min readDec 7, 2021

Values are very personal things — measures of our judgement and governors of our behaviour.

They’re like irresistible magnets that draw people together or push them apart. They’re so powerful that some will go to extremes for the ones they truly cherish.

That’s why organisations that take values seriously get the very best out of the people who make up the community of work. Good values can inspire greatness in the face of our most severe tests or ambitious challenges. But only if the values feel real.

Well referenced values are the difference between underachievement (or worse, dysfunction) and great success. The trick is in the verb. They must be referred to or they won’t feel real.

So we set out shared values and expect people will do the right thing. If everyone agrees with the values, why wouldn’t they work? Here are a couple of reasons why…

First is the blind eye. Ironically, the more passionately committed to something you are — whether it’s a person, an organisation or a thing — the more likely you are to turn a blind eye to things that don’t fit with the way you want them to be. Gilovich and Lee make it brilliantly clear in ‘The wisest one in the room’ how our judgement can be swayed without our knowledge and our bias can lead us astray. So we need constructive colleagues to help us see ourselves in action.

The second is that we take values for granted and we’re easily distracted. It’s a bit like driving. Once you’ve driven long enough, the process of driving becomes second nature — you can go for miles in a kind of ‘autopilot’ mode without really noticing what you’re doing. Mostly, that’s fine, but if you’re not paying attention, you’re more likely to have an accident. It’s exactly the same with values.

A statement says what the values are, but we also need to know how they work. The difference between good values and great ones is small on paper, but huge in practice. Make them as easy as possible to refer to in practical ways and they’ll drive performance. The less obvious they are, the harder it is to tap their potential and the more effort it takes to keep them in play.

At the Centre for Thriving Places we thought we were great at this kind of stuff, and today we can proudly say that we are. But to begin with, we were only ‘quite good’. Here’s how we learned what we learned.

Our mission was to put the drivers of real value (healthy people, thriving places and flourishing society) at the heart of the economy. So we were 100% values driven — the whole point was that values are ‘system settings’ that determine how things work and what is produced.

We knew that we needed to keep things simple and easy to grasp so we started with a set of ‘guiding principles’. They were:

* Challenge root causes
* Make what matters count
* Focus on solutions
* Change the Focus, change the world
* Shared humanity

We felt these would allow us to explain the systems thinking context of our work in ‘plain english’. In practice, it just meant we spent quite a lot of time explaining ourselves. It felt justified because people seemed quite inspired when they ‘got’ how our thinking worked. But it wasn’t quite right.

The original ‘guiding principles’ were rational ways of behaving — but we noticed they weren’t the things we emphasised when talking about working together as a team. Clearly the things we chose to say were more important about how we wanted to be, so our values set became:

* Generosity & Trust
* Curiosity
* Ubuntu
* With not on
* Good Will and
* Forgiveness

It felt much more comfortable as a values statement, but we still had a whole document adding detail, so we knew we hadn’t achieved the simplicity we craved.

The answer in the end came when the brilliant Wren Aigaki-Lander joined our team and basically said ‘there’s gotta be an easier way’! So she set out to explore ‘how we should be on our best day’. After conversations with the team, board and associates and a couple of group workshops, she reflected back what we’d said like this:

This was a step change because she’d managed to hone down the ‘pracitice’ for each principle into a few simple/memorable points, which (importantly) everybody felt they owned. This did two things. It made it easy to see choices and decisions in the light of our values, but better than that, checking in on them became a joyful thing. We wanted to walk our talk, and it felt good when we noticed each other living them out.

Wren’s work in 2019 shifted the dial for the company, helping people feel more at home, more sure of themselves, and more proud to be part of the team. The wellbeing effects of this kind of culture are significant in lots of ways that improve performance internally. But more than that — partners, funders, clients and associates all love that our values are so practical — they can see that we’re being the way we say we will be. This strengthens relationships and has a positive impact on financial performance too.

Two other examples which I really like (of organisations who’ve made their values active) are The Forward Institute which teaches responsible leadership, and the Finance Innovation Lab that seeks to gear the financial system to work for the real needs of people, the environment the wider economy and society.

The Forward institute has five principles and four practices which you can see in full here. In brief they are:

And for the Finance Innovation Lab there are three values with three practices each like this:

There’s a fully detailed explanation of the way they live out their values here.

As I said at the beginning, conversations about values are deeply personal — so there isn’t a ‘right answer’ — you only have to skim this list of 190 ‘brilliant company values’ to see how varied our approaches are. But if you’re interested in ‘unlocking the potential of human values’, The Common Cause Foundation is a fantastic place to start.

Good values bring us together but well shared values bring out the best in us. The stronger the community, the more resilient it is, the better we can achieve our goals. So my simple conclusion is this. Look at the values your group or organisation hold, and work out what’s happening when you see them in action. Capture those actions in the simplest form of words you can, and then pay attention to what goes on.

When you’re noticing and celebrating your values in action, your community is in good shape. You’ll have more confidence in each other and your ability to do the right thing. That’s how great teams perform!



Mike Zeidler

Constantly Curious Serial Optimist. Writes about things that work well, sharing the good stuff and adventures in life.