“If you’re not willing to accept the pain real values incur, don’t bother going to the trouble of formulating a values statement.” – Patrick M. Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Teams that take their dynamic from functional to exceptional operate from the same mindset, says Roger Schwarz, an organisational psychologist and the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams. Their collective goals are clear, which is driven by agreed-upon goals.

In high-performing – or Elite – teams, everyone pulls his weight in the same direction, fully aligned in towards reaching the collective goal. A shared set of values is the dynamo behind this energy.

It seems easy enough to construct a set of values, says Patrick Lencioni, guest writer for Forbes and author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Communication. Respect. Integrity. Excellence. These all descriptive words which denote values; nobody can argue with their positive connotations. These are the corporate values of Enron, as stated in the business’s 2000 annual report. And, as history has shown, they were hollow words on paper.

Lencioni says that many businesses view a values initiative in the same way they see a marketing launch: a onetime event measured by the initial attention it receives. Instead, they should be much more concerned about the authenticity of its content.

Cultivating core values is like making fine wine

For a values statement to be authentic, “it doesn’t have to sound like it belongs on a Hallmark card,” Lencioni explains. Some of the most values-driven companies feature robust and no-nonsense value statements. What’s more, their value statements are distinctive and made-to-measure by the team, for the team.

To construct a respected values programme, leadership should approach cultivating the values in the same way a winemaker produces fine wine: do not try to rush it. The team needs to arrive at a statement which they willingly internalise.

Outlining a values statement in a silo and then instructing the team to follow it is seldom effective. Team members can’t be told what to find meaningful. Research shows that when values are unveiled with all participants playing a role, those values are more likely to be unique to the team. The same study correlates unique values with better team performance.

All values are not created equal

Leadership should discuss values over several months and should consider (and reconsider) how the standards will play out within their corridors. Lencioni divides organisational values into four categories, saying that management should be aware of the most to the least strategic:

  1. Core values are the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones.
  2. Aspirational values are those that a company needs to succeed in the future but currently lacks.
  3. Permission-to-play values reflect the minimum behavioural and social standards required of any employee.
  4. Accidental values arise spontaneously without being cultivated by leadership and take hold over time.

Permission-to-play values tend to not vary much across companies, particularly those working in the same region or industry. This set of values seldom contributes to distinguishing a company from its competitors.

Accidental values usually reflect the common interests or personalities of the organisation’s employees. Accidental values can be positive, like when they create an atmosphere of inclusivity. However, they can also be damaging, foreclosing new opportunities. Managers need to distinguish core values from merely accidental ones, as confusing the two sets of values can be catastrophic.

In terms of aspirational values, the company may need to develop a new value to support a new strategy or to meet the requirements of a changing market or industry. As such, it’s second in rank to core values. Carefully crafted core values are the source of a business’s distinctiveness and must be protected at all costs.

An Elite Team weaves its core values into everything it does. Leadership integrates the core value statement into every employee-related process – recruiting and hiring methods, performance management systems, criteria for promotions and rewards, and even dismissal policies.

Deconstruct each value to the core elements

Genuinely understanding the chosen values is critical to implementation, says Amelia Friedman, a Washingtonian Tech Titan. Research indicates that team members who know and understands their values are 51 times more likely to be fully engaged in their work.

Even so, the most well-intentioned employee may misunderstand or misapply a value. Leadership needs to dig deep into each value, focussing on addressing questions like:

  • What does this value mean to us?
  • What does it look like in action?
  • How might it be misinterpreted?
  • How will we evaluate adherence to it?
  • How will it change our relationships or our interactions?

Synthesise your shared understanding into clear explanations of how you will practically live those values in the team.

During this process, leadership should task the team to nail down the precise wording and interpretations. Word choice is essential, says Friedman, since it will affect how the values are read and interpreted. When it comes to separating good teams from great ones, the phrasing of core values can take a team from performing well to high-performing.

Shared values propagate accountability

In high-performing organisations, Elite Teams operate as empowered networks. Decision authority is part and parcel of their set of core values. And, says Deloitte, decision authority and accountability go hand in hand.

Empowering the team to make decisions and relying on networks of connections doesn’t mean that participants are no longer accountable for results. In fact, a primary objective of a system of teams is goal-setting to support success.

Accountability becomes more transparent and individual, and team goals are shared openly. Sharing creates a sense of responsibility which is critical to the team’s (and the corporation’s) effectiveness.

Deloitte has found that among 17 top practices in high-performing teams, the ability to clarify accountability – and define decision-making practices – features among the top drivers of outstanding results, including financial outcomes.

As a new project commences, leadership should facilitate a clear understanding of how each team member will be held accountable. The other side of the same coin is to empower the participants to perform together.

Mary Shapiro teaches organisational behaviour at Simmons College and is the author of the HBR Guide to Leading Teams. She recommends coming up with an “explicit agreement” about how the team will handle matters, like the division of labour and deadlines. When a team transcends its status from good to great to elite, it’s because its members are operating from the same mindset. Everybody is clear about their shared values, norms and goals.


Bersin, J., McDowell, T., Rahnema, A., Van Durme, Y. & Rahnema, A. (2017). The organization of the future: Arriving now. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2017/organization-of-the-future.html.

Pearce, C.L., & Barkus, B. (2004). The Future of Leadership: Combining Vertical and Shared Leadership to Transform Knowledge Work (and Executive Commentary). Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/4166034?read-now=1&seq=1.

Knight, R. (2014). How to Give Your Team Feedback. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/06/how-to-give-your-team-feedback.

Stoner, J. L. (unsure). Why Good Teams Make Bad Decisions. Retrieved from https://seapointcenter.com/why-good-teams-make-bad-decisions/.

Edmondson, A.C. (2018). How fearless organizations succeed. Retrieved from https://www.strategy-business.com/article/How-Fearless-Organizations-Succeed?gko=63131.

Forbes Coaches Council. (2016). 13 Characteristics Of A High-Performing Team (And How Leaders Can Foster Them). Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2016/10/14/13-characteristics-of-a-high-performing-team-and-how-leaders-can-foster-them/#2f88cf3e394a.

Hammett, G. (2019). 297 Teams Were Analyzed to Determine the Best Predictors of High-Performing Teams. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/gene-hammett/how-this-global-tech-company-approaches-building-high-performing-teams.html.

Keller, S., & Meaney, M. (2017). High-performing teams: A timeless leadership topic. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/high-performing-teams-a-timeless-leadership-topic.

Galunic, C. (2015). Does Articulating Your Corporate Values Matter? Retrieved from https://knowledge.insead.edu/leadership-organisations/does-articulating-your-corporate-values-matter-4126.

Abdallah, E., & Ahluwalia, A. (2013). The Keys to Building a High-Performance Culture. Retrieved from https://www.gallup.com/workplace/236546/keys-building-high-performance-culture.aspx.

Enjoyed our thinking?
Get in touch to understand how we can support you.