Understanding Our Core Values: An Exercise for Individuals and Teams

Last year, I read Brené Brown's book Dare to Lead. I am very fond of her book Daring Greatly. Dare to Lead covers much of the same subject matter—relationships, vulnerability, shame, being present—but I found the framing of these themes with a focus on leadership particularly valuable.

The word leadership makes me uncomfortable. It is often used to evoke a caricature of leadership—cunning, bravado, strength, decisiveness, certainty—a caricature that is missing the depth, connection, purpose, authenticity, relatedness, and understanding of true leadership. In Dare to Lead, Brené defines leadership broadly, without any association to role, title, seniority, or relationship:

I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.

This definition recognizes that everyone in an organization can provide leadership, and that leadership can involve developing and nurturing tooling, technologies, procedures, source code, documentation, relationships, and culture, in addition to people.

A value is a way of being or believing that we hold important. Brené believes that leaders always carry a clarity of values, and that leaders do more than profess their values, they practice them. As leaders, we need to be clear about what we believe and hold important, and we need to ensure that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviours align with our values.

Explicitly identifying our values takes reflection and contemplation—deeply personal work that many people have never taken the time for. I thought it would be valuable for me to define and express my core values, and to get each person on my team to do the same, as a way to improve self-awareness, understand each other better, identify leadership opportunities, and support each other in our values. This essay is an exploration of this exercise: an exercise in exploring, identifying, expressing, and sharing our core values.

Defining Our Core Values: An Exercise for Individuals

In Dare to Lead, Brené presents a list of values.[1] The list includes a diverse set of over 100 values, values like accountability, achievement, balance, competence, excellence, family, giving back, joy, legacy, order, patience, recognition, resourcefulness, travel, wealth, and wisdom. You can also add your own values. The exercise is to narrow this large list of values down to your two core values.

As Brené describes, reducing this list to just two values is universally difficult. Most people will identify with 10 or 20 values. However, if many values on the list are important to you, then nothing is truly a driver. The most difficult work comes in focusing the list of values that you identify with—Brené calls these second-tier values—down to just two.

After completing this exercise and observing a number of friends and colleagues complete this exercise, I think the most effective way to focus our values is to first identify all of the values that we connect with, then organize them into values that relate to each other. This mapping helps establish our motivating values that our other values support. As Brené elaborates:

I've taken more than ten thousand people through this work, and when people are willing to stay with the process long enough to whittle their big list down to two, they always come to the same conclusion that I did with my own values process: My two core values are where all of the "second tier" circled values are tested.

Exploring My Values

The values I identified with are underlined below. I also added three of my own: quality, objectivity, and diligence.

I am an engineer, so a number of these values make sense at face value: ethics, intuition, knowledge, learning, resourcefulness, understanding. We must be careful, however, to avoid misinterpreting another person's values from our own perspective. We need to reserve judgement, stay curious, ask questions, and develop the cognitive empathy required to appreciate these values from the perspective of the other person.

For example, some people will misinterpret my identification with values like ethics, excellence, fairness, integrity, and justice. They will think, "Yes, that is Colin: harsh, judgemental, inflexible, and unforgiving. He speaks in absolutes and extremes. If he would just lighten up a bit and take things less seriously, he would be a lot better off!" But this interpretation is very different from how I see these values. I associate them with being equitable, objective, caring, and responsible. [2]

Time is another value that might be misinterpreted without further explanation. I value time to work by myself, or with a small group of people, with focus, in a state of flow, doing deep, challenging, high-quality work. I do not enjoy context switching, or making reactionary decision without the time to digest, contemplate, and experiment. I do not enjoy making short-term investments without recognizing the systemic impacts or aligning them with longer-term objectives. This is something that I often find in conflict with my role as a manager, dealing with a fractured schedule and making myself available for interruptions. It is also in conflict with the noisy and distracting open-plan offices that are so popular these days, and the never-ending stream of email, group chat, code reviews, Tweets, and so on.[3] Being responsible for operating critical, customer-facing production services, where I may have to respond to a production incident at the drop of a hat, also influences how I value time. Sometimes, even just the anticipation of an interruption is enough to ensure I struggle to get work done.[4]

As I refined my values, four of them rose to the top and I organized my other values around them.

Note how connecting values with other values helps give them more texture and makes them easier for others to interpret. Some values I identified with in multiple ways. For example, time in terms of the quality of my time and my experiences, but also as the time to learn and expand my knowledge. Understanding I identified with knowledge, but also with vulnerability, in terms of feeling understood by others.

As I examined these values further—quality, independence, knowledge, and vulnerability—it became clear to me that quality was my top value. It was the driver for almost all of my other values.[5] As I explored vulnerability more, I concluded that the values I categorized with vulnerability were also about quality: the quality of my relationships, the quality of the experiences that I share with others, and the quality of the organizations that I am a part of.

Narrowing my values to just two was difficult. Quality was undoubtedly my top value, but independence and knowledge seemed almost equal. One of my colleagues pointed out that one cannot have independence without knowledge, and suggested I pick knowledge. However, I identify with these values the other way around: it is from knowledge that I can be independent, express my creativity, take risks, and be unique. My colleague helped me identify knowledge as my second core value.

Expressing My Two Core Values

As I already mentioned, organizing your second-tier values around your two cores values helps give them texture and helps other people understand them:

Once you have identified your two core values, form a sentence for each one that concisely communicates this value to another person. My two core values are quality and knowledge. I value the quality of my work, the quality of my experiences, and the quality of my relationships. I value knowledge because it is the foundation of understanding and fuels my ambition, creativity, independence, and intuition.

Sharing Our Values: An Exercise for Teams

After identifying our values individually, I met with each person on my team and we shared our values, one-on-one. It was an enlightening experience. Even though some of us have been working together for years, it helped me understand people more completely, and it helped people understand me better, as well. It was important that I shared my values, rather than just asking people to share their values with me. This made it a shared experience, building trust and connection.

After sharing my values, one person commented that they sound like the values of a more senior engineer. There was more clarity in them and they were focused on depth, excellence, independence, and continued learning. They compared them to the values of someone earlier in their career, where they might value learning, growing, having an impact, and making a difference.[6] It is reasonable that some values would shift over time, especially through life-changing events, like having a child or changing careers, that broaden our perspectives. Other values will be less mutable and ingrained from our early childhood.[7]

The core values of my colleagues who participated in this exercise were: knowledge and collaboration; independence and commitment; personal-fulfilment and openness; respect and personal-fulfilment; making a difference and freedom; growth and making a difference; contribution and trust; and, finally, compassion and ambition.

The final part of the exercise was to share our values with the rest of the team. One person commented, "I would like to share and hear what other people's values are—that is where I will really learn." We shared our values during a team off-site meeting. Each person shared their two core values and, since this was a team-building exercise, we each identified why these values were important in our work.

When listening to someone share their values, we need to be very careful not to impose our interpretation of the value. The other person's mapping of that value, based on their experiences and perspectives, may be wildly different from ours. For example, consider environment. Two of my colleagues identified environment as a value. For one person, environment was related to their work environment, identifying it with collaboration, openness, respect, flexibility, and lack of toxicity. For another, environment was the importance of the connection between their work and its impact on advancing renewable energy and sustainability to improve people's lives and the health of our planet.

It is equally important to recognize that other people will not always see us or understand us the way we see and understand ourselves. A really valuable book for understanding the values that drive you, as well as providing perspective on how other people interpret you, is Please Understand Me.[8] As an example, describing Rationals, like myself:

One of the most important things to remember about Rationals, if they are to be understood, is that they yearn for achievement. Some might suppose that these seemingly calm and contemplative types have no strong desires. But beneath the calm exterior is a gnawing hunger to achieve whatever goals they set for themselves.[9]
—David Keirsey in Please Understand Me II

As I already mentioned, rather than just stating your two core values, relate them to your second-tier values and define a sentence for each one. This provides others enough perspective and texture to avoid misinterpretation. Staying curious and asking your colleagues to tell you more is also an excellent way to avoid misinterpretation.

The Values of a Team

One of the reasons that teams are so valuable is that they invite diverse experiences, perspectives, opinions, and contributions. The individuals that form a team will not all share the same values, but their values should be compatible and complimentary. As teammates, we have the wonderful opportunity to respect, celebrate, and support each other's values.

For my teammates, I see common themes in their values. They want to learn, grow, and express their creativity, doing so in an environment that is open and respectful, where they are making a difference and working on problems that are meaningful. They want connection to each other, as well as connection to their work, including the greater meaning, purpose, and lasting impact. They want agency and autonomy. People want to contribute and be empowered to make decisions that have an impact.[10] I believe most teams would exhibit similar themes in their values, because these are the values that Dank Pink identified as our intrinsic motivators—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—in Drive, one of my favourite books.

The opposite of autonomy is control. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement. Engagement leads to mastery, the desire to get better at something that matters.
Dan Pink

Many of my colleague's values—learning, commitment, connectedness, relatedness, respect, perseverance, authenticity, reliability, excellence—are related to my top value: quality. They value the quality of their experience, the quality of their work, and the quality of their impact. This is not surprising, since this is a team that I built and it will undoubtedly reflect my values in the process. It is also unexceptional, because teams of engineers will fundamentally value quality.

One of my favourite ideas from the software classic Peopleware, is the notion that you cannot negotiate quality with a team. The internal quality bar of an effective team is just so much higher than what anyone can impose externally. If you try to dictate quality, you will drive out pride-of-workmanship, the team will be unhappy, and you will lose the team. This is a theme that others have repeated: Erik Dietrich, in the article How To Keep Your Best Programmers, and Bryan Cantrill, in his talk Leadership Without Management: Scaling Organizations by Scaling Engineers. If you focus too much on short-term thinking and solutions, you will never leave enough time for the long-term thinking and investments that lead to the quality that engineers crave.

They don't understand the most fundamental truism of software: functionality, quality, and schedule—you get to pick only two. By the way, if you're going to pick functionality and schedule, I'm out of here, and so is every other high-quality engineer, because I don't want to deliver shit.
Bryan Cantrill

It is invaluable for a team to explicitly identify and express their shared values. As Brené writes in Dare to Lead, "We can't live into values we can't name". My articles On Being a Team Lead: Welcome to Our Team and Reflections on Being a Team Lead were my attempts to express and align our values as a team. Both of these articles have been especially valuable when shared with people who want to join our team. People can ask themselves, are these values that I identify with, values I share, values I want to uphold?[11]


I enjoyed the exercise of exploring our core values. It improved my self-awareness, it broadened my understanding of my colleagues, and it helped my team improve their understanding of me. My colleagues universally felt this was a valuable exercise. Because we are all leaders, it deepened our understanding of our preferences and highlighted areas where we have the agency to make a meaningful impact.

Regardless of the values you pick, daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.
— Brené Brown in Dare to Lead

Exploring, identifying, and expressing our core values is a vulnerable experience. Sharing our core values with colleagues is an even more vulnerable experience. But that's the whole point: going through this exercise as a team helps build the self-awareness, understanding, and relatedness that are the foundations of a psychologically-safe and high-performing team. If your teammates understand your values, it will be easier for them to understand where you are coming from, it will reduce conflict, and it will help them support you in staying true to your values in your work. Aligning shared or complimentary values can clarify the mission of a team.

Team dynamics and psychological safety are the most important aspects in understanding team performance.

It would be useful to revisit this exercise over time, to see how our values change. Even if they do not change, reflecting again on our core values and sharing them again with friends and colleagues will strengthen our relationships and understanding of each other. Reflecting on our values over time takes this exercise to the next level. It can help us understand when it is time to leave a job—before becoming frustrated or bitter—and it can help us understand when the underlying driver for a value is related to aspirations, judgement, expectations, or shame. I will explore these subjects in a subsequent article.

  1. The list is also available on Brené's website. ↩︎

  2. I have encountered situations where people mistakenly think I want others to be held accountable, but I do not even like the word accountable. As Brené writes in Dare to Lead, "Blame is so easy and accountability is such a time suck. And no fun at all." I prefer the word responsible. I believe we are responsible for our work, but we are only accountable to ourselves. ↩︎

  3. I disable notifications for almost all applications, but when I do open them, keeping up with a large number of unread messages, even if they are well curated, still imposes a significant penalty on my time and attention. ↩︎

  4. I wrote about this some in my essay The Cost of a Meeting: Is the Daily Stand-Up Worth It?. It is why I enjoy working on my writing for this blog on the weekends when I can find the time to focus and get deep into my work (usually) without interruption. ↩︎

  5. For people who have never met me, they can probably see a reflection of this value in the essays that I write on this website. They tend to be long, considered, and detailed. I write these essays for myself, and I certainly understand that they will not be everyone's cup of tea. What is important to me is long-term quality. Some of my early work can be quite scrappy and disorganized, then I refine it over time. ↩︎

  6. These are also values of a senior engineer, but a senior engineer likely feels more accomplished and, therefore, more comfortable living into these values, giving them less emphasis. ↩︎

  7. This happens through contributing factors like shame and how we were conditioned as a child, well before we can talk. I will expand on this more in a subsequent article. ↩︎

  8. I found the book Please Understand Me really valuable for understanding myself and how others see me. I have referenced it a couple of times on this blog in the articles An Interview as a Listening Session and On Being a Team Lead: Welcome to Our Team. ↩︎

  9. An important value for Rationals is that these are goals they have set for themselves, not goals imposed by others. ↩︎

  10. Agency is often overlooked. Even too much collaboration can erode agency. I wrote more about agency in my essay The Importance of Agency. ↩︎

  11. I also think it is really valuable to explicitly describe how the team works and, through this process, explore and express the values of the team. An excellent example is Rob Witoff's manifesto How One Eng Team Works. My team has a git repository that describes how we work. It includes documents on team structure, communication preferences, development methodology, recurring meetings, and programming philosophises. ↩︎