The first steppe(s) up the Values Pyramid

The first steppe(s) up the Values Pyramid

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The word steppe comes from 15th-century Russia and means ‘further origin uncertain’, which neatly captures the nature of values. While they’re often presented as fully formed imperatives. They’re not. It’s an ongoing process to find them, understand them and use them to guide choices every day.

But first. Vast and often untravelled lands lie between ‘I think this is how I will do things’ and ‘this IS how I do things’.

How you traverse that territory is captured in the Values Pyramid*.

Finding your values generally follows a familiar script. A team decides what the values are or if they need to change. It might be the Board, executives, or a grab bag of staff and external consultants. A list is assembled and agreed, and the values are stated as short phrases or single words, usually with a descriptive blurb.

You might hold a few meetings to launch them to staff. Posters go up on the wall, and the values appear on the website. They show up as talking points in hiring and questions in the engagement survey.

Then, after the initial flurry of activity, everyone returns to business as usual. You occasionally reference the values, for example, during planning days or when something bad happens.

Scaling the pyramid is a different and dynamic way of doing values. It helps maintain momentum and builds autonomy and mastery as people move between the layers at various speeds.

The first two levels—I know what they are and what they mean—are the all-important foundations. Let’s climb.

I know what they are

I know we have values, but I need to look at the poster on the wall or check that web page to recite them. And overall, how I do things doesn’t change much, or at all.

Sound familiar?

Values that languish in this first layer risk feeding cynicism and cries of lip service. This can erode trust and ripple through people’s work. Cratering their enthusiasm and commitment.

The sure sign you’re stuck at, ‘I know what they are’, is when staff struggle to list the values and can only talk about the ones they can remember using generic, rote descriptions.

To get to the next level, ditch the hype. It’s not a marketing campaign trumpeting your goodness. Give me the context as well as concrete, pointy and visual detail. And vitally, slow down. It’s not a race, and absorbing what the values mean will take a while.

I know what they mean

Knowing what something is versus what it means is orders of magnitude different. I might know what a value is. Recognise the words and their generic definition. See it listed and even appreciate that I am supposed to relate to it.

But knowing what it means requires something deeper than memorising a descriptive veneer. I need to understand the boundaries of what it is and isn’t and when it goes too far. It’s the only way I can scale the pyramid, make the right promises, and put the values to work.

If people can talk about the values and how they relate to them but can’t list how they’re used, you might have plateaued at ‘I know what they mean’.

To get to the next level, make sure you’ve identified each value’s boundary and discuss them in small groups so people can more easily wrestle with any niggles or disconnects.

Start small with one loose yet pointy activity that staff can apply in their own way. For example, one client had people choose a value and layer a habit to highlight it onto something in their daily routine.

Even though each person’s habit differed, the collective power rippled out, releasing energy for the values across the workforce.

So, you’ve built the foundations and people know what your values are and what they mean. Now, you’re ready to keep climbing.

Next. Putting your values to work every day. Even when it’s inconvenient.

In the meantime, if you want to dive deeper into how to make the most of your values, download the Values collection—20 articles to help you find and put your values to work.

Thanks for reading.


*  The pyramid stages were inspired by Aristotle and shared with me by a friend and colleague six years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to refine, simplify, and use the ideas with clients, road-testing their usefulness and impact.

Share this