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Rethinking Group Values

Engage the eye-rollers and the eager beavers to define group values.

When working with groups, facilitators and community developers often begin with the task of identifying a group’s values or guiding principles. In the room there will be the eye rollers who mutter “good glory, can we just get on with it?” and the intensely reflective participants who are already waving their hands like primary school students wanting to be the first to say “respect… inclusive… honesty!”

Values are attitudes and commitments that motivate us to act a certain way. They are based on our ethical standards and are a measure of what is important to us. Values are going to be different for everyone. In a group, the process of defining group values begins to shape the common ground shared among individuals or organizations. This is important when people intend to work together on a project or share resources.

We have seen communities interpret the task and usefulness of creating shared values differently. Some take it to heart, others see it as a necessary evil in the traditional expectations of planning. The results? Over the long term many groups find that they do, indeed, enact their values, conduct their behaviour and influence their decision making in a way that aligns. Where we see trouble is when a community has not put in the time or priority to a meaningful process of developing these values and then (down the road) go completely off the rails as contradictory behaviours, comments and decisions show up.

So how do you effectively engage both the eye rollers and the eager beavers in a meaningful process? Here is what NOT to do:

  • Bypass the process completely to avoid ruffling feathers.
  • Skim the surface of the process and quickly gather the “off-the cuff” list of tried and true values that are, out of context, rather meaningless and not a reflection of the whole group.
  • Create and impose top down RULES (hidden under the word values) that quash diverse thinking and individuality.
  • Get all “existential” on everyone and immerse the group with lectures on ethical hierarchies, morality and anthropological lenses (yikes!).

To get to values that are useful during the course of the group’s work together and not just collect dust on an old flip chart paper or get buried in meeting minutes, try an adaptation of this 30-minute process.


  1. Let the group know that 30 minutes will be invested to set the stage for the working relationship of the group.
  2. Give each participant a list of values (find one online and make sure there is space for “other”).
  3. Have people work ALONE, to mark the top 3 values that they feel are the most pertinent with the group and the project. Help people get into the value mind-set with a few questions such as: What does this group/project stand for? What do you see at the core of this group/project?
  4. Forming small groups, ask individuals to share 3 values and why they fit. Make note of ones that are the SAME and ones that the group really identifies with.
  5. Challenge each small group to come to a consensus on the top 3 shared values from this collective list.
  6. Have each small group share their list with the whole group. After each presentation, allow time for people to pose questions about how each value relates to the group/project at hand.

    For example: Courage

    What does this mean for safety? What are the fears about this project/group that would need courage to overcome them? What is at the essence of courage for you? What does it mean?

  7. Have individuals work ALONE again and cast a vote for their personal top 3 values.
  8. Have someone enter all the values into a word cloud program such as  www.wordle.net to see both the collection of values that the group has identified surround the project and the values of highest importance (the top ones will be bigger – but the others won’t be lost).
  9. Post this, refer to it, and question it often. It can help during the group’s cycle of learning, planning and decision making.
  10. Ask the group; what will we do if any of these values are not evident in our behaviours or decisions? If the values are truly shared and clearly understood, the answer to this questions won’t be as difficult as it sounds!

Sometimes the most relevant group values are ones that not everyone understands how they fit at first glance. Through learning about and applying them, meaning emerges as people balance what resonates personally and what “fits” with the group or project.

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