Holacracy Community of Practice Archive, 2015-2019 Community Holacracy Web Site

Values In Holacracy

Along comes another powershift issue which may be related to this post last week.

As company founder I see the values of the organisation as the bedrock or perhaps the seedbed or even the DNA of everything that we do. A strong purpose is essential. However the purpose of an organisation needs to have an operating context. The same strong purpose could be enacted in any number of different ways depending on the values within which it was being carried out.

So who defines or is the guardian of the values of the organisation?

As an ex CEO I assumed that one of the roles I would continue to carry would be some sort of values guardian. I have created and now hold this role BUT I encountered a lot of unexpected resistance from the GCC team whilst enacting that and I'm still trying to process this resistance. 

I guess what I am trying to grapple with is the concept of working in and for a company that I founded that might one day hold different values to those that originally drove me to setup the organisation and in the worst case scenario held values that I feel completely opposed to.

At the same time I want to better understand what causes this resistance. It partly comes from a sense that by being the guardian of the values I am somehow setting myself apart from other team members in a way which feels like I'm reinventing the CEO role within Holacracy. But there may also be other things going on.

It's the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night! At the same time I feel very lucky to be working with people who are attached enough to our purpose that they want to be deeply involved with all aspects of who we are in the world.

I read an interesting blog item from Brian written in 2013 on the subject of values in Holacracy. I'm not sure whether I entirely agree with his conclusions but it was definitely food for thought.

24 Replies
Ivan Matosyan

[@mention:577633875651499938] Great topic!

We used to follow a principle, that you cannot just state what values you want, because they are in people who are working in a company. So we had whole day onsite workshop to discover and agree on company wide values according to Barrets approach.

As a former CEO I felt tensions about this approach, as I find it necessary to distinguish between personal, teams and organizations values.
Orgs. values I believe are part of business model. The way we want to appear to our customers as we find it necessary to achieve our purpose. With that in mind, I think company`s values can be strategies in Holacracy.

IMO resitance might come from the inside of people, beacause you try to set personal/teams values which cannot be set. If you want to setup org. values, then I would suggest a strategy proces/meeting where you get input.

What values are trying to guard as a values guardian (personal, teams, orgs)?


Hmm - that's a good question Ivan. I think I see it as the values which we as an organisation enact in the world i.e. what do we stand for or what do we stand up for

In a way this is part of our business model though actually for me personally using the word 'business model' doesn't quite fit either. 

As lead link of the GCC I can set the overall purpose of the organisation. But as lead link of the GCC I need to know in what context we are carrying out that purpose and so far as I can see the values of the organisation are the context i.e. because we are 'us' we are carrying out our purpose in this kind of way

Chris Cowan


I think one important distinction to hold is between the values themselves and HOW those values get expressed, i.e. behaviorally. Because getting behavior-based alignment tends to work better. 

So, we can all agree to "treat each other fairly." But what happens when you think I treated you fairly and don't think I did? Now the conflict SEEMS to be about the value of fairness, but it's really not. Which makes it hard to update our agreement about what we expect.

It's just about different interpretations or strategies to express that value. Non-violent communication does a great job of explaining the distinction between a human "need," like safety, respect, love, and "a strategy," which is what we use to meet that need.

For example, I need to feel "valuable," but my co-workers aren't giving me the kind of positive feedback I expect. So, by reflecting, I realize that my strategy of passively just waiting around for positive feedback isn't really working. So, recognizing I need a new strategy (one that I have more control over), I decide to solicit positive feedback rather than just wait for it (e.g. "Hey everyone, I could really use a boost and was wondering if you would be willing to share anything I've done recently that's made a positive impact on you or your work...). That's the difference between a "need"/"value" and a "strategy"/"behavior." 

Deep down, our needs (i.e. values) are never really in conflict, because we all need all of them. What comes into conflict are our strategies. And failing to make the distinction between the need itself and the strategy to meet the need creates all sorts of pain and confusion.

That's why behavioral agreements tend to work better, BUT coming up with new strategies or agreements then requires knowledge of the values or needs beneath them. So, values-work is still needed, just don't stop there. 


Thanks Chris - once again that's really useful. I like the separation of 'need' or 'value' and what we use to meet that need. Sounds not dissimilar to some of the frameworks used in Landmark Forum training which I did many moons ago.

I think I agree that deep down our values/needs are not really in conflict and that we all need all of them but it also seems to me that an organisation or a group of people may decide to focus on one set of values rather than another as being their particular contribution to the larger conversation.

Chris Cowan

[@mention:577633875651499938] You're welcome! And I agree that focusing on one set of values or principles is totally fine. There are rarely any objectively right or wrong approaches for every situation, so do what makes the most sense to you. 

I know for me, once I discovered the different principles/values informing the constitution, I was finally able to understand it, so I think it's a great idea to regularly surface the operating values of the group and reflect upon them. Again, I just wouldn't stop there, but it could be a great start. 


Coming back to your behavioural agreements Chris, is this something that you see as being expressed as strategies (in the Holacratic sense) and therefore for a lead link to propose? If this is the case in what sense is this an agreement?

Chris Cowan

[@mention:577633875651499938] No, not as strategies. And it's definitely not something the Lead Link would care about (or I should say, I wouldn't expect the Lead Link role-filler to care anymore or less about it than any other role-filler).

I was talking about them generally, so you could apply that principle to formulating a strategy, but they aren't directly related.

I think the first place to look is always governance. It may not be enough, but defining expectations in governance should always be the first consideration. That's a critical point.

Now, let's assume that this isn't really a role thing like Chris consistently accepts meeting requests, but then just doesn't show up to them. OK, that's a Chris-as-a-person thing. 

Or, let's say you'd like everyone to agree to have some sort of clearing conversation when an interpersonal tension arises. And that's just something you want the people to agree to (not the roles). 

So again, and it's really important to get this, this isn't a constitutionally-governed type thing, this is something between the people as people. 

With that said, the best way I know how to actualize the behavioral agreements in the people-space is to create some sort of ledger to make these agreements explicit. There are a few features: 

  • Agreements are behavioral, i.e. not value, need, or principle-based
  • Agreements can be added, changed, or removed as necessary
  • An individual's agreement is voluntary and can be removed at any time
  • Agreements aren't necessarily for all partners 

Now, this is kinda hard to explain in writing, so I just recorded a quick video explaination. I hope it helps! 

Behavioral Agreements Ledger Video: High Level

Malachi Rempen

Wow. [@mention:455886150941203371], you really are the gift that keeps on giving! That video and the example of how you do behavioral agreements was huge for me (coming from the other thread about policies that try to limit people behavior. Full disclosure - I work with [@mention:577633875651499938]!). I hope it's okay with you that I've shared it with our "people" circle - sometimes "teal" thinking is tough to communicate and this was one of the best examples of it in practice that I've ever seen.

Not that we'll copy your ledger exactly per se, but you did a great job communicating the spirit of it. I hope we can come up with something in the same vein.

Thank you!


What Mal said Chris! That was super helpful.

I really like this concept of behavioural agreement. It's clear and specific and easy to communicate. I suspect that when it's first introduced some people might find it way too specific for comfort! 

It still seems important to have a value set on which some of those behavioural agreements might be based. For example we tend to recruit based more on our sense of people's values and qualities than we do based on their specific skillset. Of course that process is unavoidably imperfect but on balance it has meant that we have a team whom are reasonably well aligned when compared with other places I have known that recruited with a focus on skillsets perhaps because as an organisation they may not even have a strong set of shared values.

Also values can often be moving and inspirational whereas as behavioural agreements most probably are not. Inspiration can move mountains!

Has Holacracy One done work on values and if so how did that happen?


A few overnight thoughts....

When I talk about values I am specifically talking about the values of the entity that is the organisation. The things the organisation will stand up for and take action on in the world. Or as I said earlier in the thread the essential context within which we will carry out our purpose.

In the real world I don't expect that my or anyone else's 'values in practice' i.e. behaviours will always represent the values that we might strive for as an organisation. Indeed it seems likely that some team members values will not necessarily align with all of those of the organisation.

But because it is an entity that is an organisation having that framework of shared guiding principles seems essential. It's our personality. A way of stretching ourselves towards something more important than what we might each reach as individuals without framework.

Chris Cowan

[@mention:577633875651499938] "Has Holacracy One done work on values and if so how did that happen?"

No, we haven't and it's a tension of mine. 


Ha ha ha! Damn - that's not the answer I was expecting! I can definitely imagine that being a tension of yours  :-)

OK - if you have any useful thoughts on the process I'd love to hear them but otherwise I'll plough on blindly for now. I know what I'm trying to get at and I'm reasonably sure it's important at least for our kind of organisation. It's just how to fit the process inside an organisation that is grasping for a more distributed leadership that I haven't quite fathomed out yet. Either way, all of the thoughts above have been really useful on that journey.

Jeff Kreh

Likewise's personnel, volunteers, interns, board members, and clients are discussing values as part of our college accreditation process. In addition to the values commonly associated with both Holacracy and classically liberal higher education, we're using Bain's B2C to identify how we interact with the 30 identified values. We ran across this resource while studying with Storybrand, who delivered it from Harvard Business Review. Great starter for conversation:



Thanks for the suggestion Jeff - Tbh I'd struggle a little with a list like this. It feels somehow impersonal. I already know what values I started the organisation with so finding the values is not really the issue. I can feel them in my stomach! 

I have two slightly different problems.

1. How does one integrate an already existing set of values into an organisation running Holacracy or any sort of distributed management.

2. How to translate what can sometimes be nebulous values into real meaningful actions so that as an organisation you can endeavour to be what you say you are in the world. This problem has been there for me since I founded the organisation. Chris talks at length and with great insight about this problem amongst others in this thread.

Jeff Kreh

[@mention:577633875651499938], we've been running Holacracy since November 2016 and distributing the values-mindset can be a challenge. The focus on "purpose" helps align new personalities in the organization. My challenge was that as co-founder and vision-bearer, all these values were in my head and meant something specific to me. Getting the values out of my head helped others, since they cannot sense my gut...

The Bain list is field tested from the consumer PoV and provides common language and definitions for internal conversations. The Storybrand framework also provides a process for embedding values in the organization's external and internal conversation. My frustrations have decreased since getting the values out of my head/gut and trusting others in the organization  to discuss and evolve the expression of our values.

I look forward to hearing more from you as you tackle this crucial element.


Thanks again Jeff. In that case getting values out in a way that helps others is much more of a shared situation. In a way they were already out there but not with the clarity we need. Which has become much more important as the team has grown.

Do you have a record of the values or a role that has an accountability related to values?

I will certainly report back as and when I start to make some headway....or alternatively with what failed and why! 

Rachel Hunt

Wait, it seems to me that this discussion is using at least two different definitions of the term "values."
At first I thought that the original poster's question about values referred the moral principles that they are personally guided by in their life and business. They seemed concerned that others in the organization did not necessarily agree with the Founder's core values. Or they did not want their values to be dictated by another person, which is understandable if we are talking about moral principles. This definition of values might include things like religious morals that could be critical to the Founders personal vision but that may or may not be shared by every partner. 

But then the discussion moved to talking about different values a business can provide to the customer. This is more in the sense of "value added" or a purchase being "a good value." This is much easier to discuss as a business proposition as it is customer driven and not based on personal moral principles. 

I'm sure that both kinds of values are important, but I wonder if there is some confusion about which kind of value can or should be dictated by the Founder or Lead Link. 


As a founder of a company it seems likely that at least some of your values (which may or may not include moral principles) are likely to infect the company that you setup, particularly if the company has a purpose over and above financial success.

If your organisation is reasonably healthy I think it is also likely that those values then become enrichened by input from others as the organisation grows.

Somehow it seems to me that for it to remain an organisation rather than a disparate group of people there needs to be some sort of alignment on those values. It also seems to me that the overriding purpose of the organisation needs to have a context of values to make sense of it's purpose.

Finally as founder, it doesn't seem unreasonable to have a role which at least co-ordinates the input from across the team into an aligned set of values which we use to provide context to our purpose. 

This is not at all about dictating personal values to team members. It is about creating alignment with a set of values that the organisation is standing up for in the world.

HolacracyOne's wonderful purpose i.e. Evolve humanity's relationship to power could mean very different things depending on the values underlying that purpose. I guess Nietzsche would have had a rather different idea about what that might mean compared with Brian or Chris


Rachel Hunt

DavidLP, I agree that team members need alignment and I do think that a discussion of values has... well ...value.  Lol.
I was simply trying to be clear about how you were defining the term. I'm still not 100% sure I understand your definition, although I think I have a pretty good idea from context. 

I just reviewed our company's statement of purpose to see if it includes anything that might be considered values. I was kind of surprised to see that it doesn't actually articulate any value statements.  However, I feel that it does indicate a certain mind set that implies (what I call) values, like compassion, encouragement, and self improvement.

When we were the heads of our companies, we had direct control over all decisions and those naturally reflected our values. As we relinquish authority to partners, it becomes more important for those values to be clearly delineated and accepted by all partners, as you have pointed out. 
And I do think that, as you said, a lot of that is managed in the hiring process and the resulting company culture reinforces those same values. I can certainly see a benefit to having a company Statement of Values or something like it. 

It also occurs to me that the Holacracy system itself implies and enforces certain values, like fairness, mutual respect, personal dignity, accountability, personal growth, team work, efficiency, and purposefulness. 

Can you give some examples of  values that you want your company to reflect?  Also, I'm curious to know what kind of resistance you have encountered and why you think that is?

This is worth talking about. I'm eager to see your reply. 


Thanks for your thoughts Rachel - I'm using the term 'values' very loosely i.e. it could range from broad values similar to those you mention through to specifics about how we approach education and learning. 

A simple day to day practical example would be the importance of making people feel welcome. That sounds almost anodyne it's so obvious doesn't it!?

However I don't mean the kind of plastic or professional welcome that is really about ensuring people become clients and pay us money! I mean that everyone we encounter as an organisation no matter what their relationship is to us e.g. the postman dropping off a package, should walk away having felt a sense of that welcome in a way which brightens their day.

Although the practice of this type of value is very down to earth and found in every day practical actions/behaviours or ways of being I think it's impact can be profound and the values lying behind those actions are super important.

Given that I haven't yet produced any sort of values document in relation to this role the resistance within the team is about the concept of a role which might hold accountabilities or even a domain over the values of the organisation. I guess they're seeing it as a top down sort of thing i.e. I'm trying to be some sort of 'Values Police' for their individual values.

As I've said above, what I'm trying to do is see the organisation as an entity in it's own right which is something separate to the individuals that work within that organisation. That entity has it's own values and they need some care and attention!

In the end I am just trying to create some clarity!

I agree that the Holacracy system implies and at least tries to enforce a strong set of broad values towards others. But Holacracy only deals with our relationships within the organisation and only deals with a certain set of values.

Rachel Hunt

Thanks for clarifying your situation. That is kind of what I thought and I certainly see what you are talking about.
I also kind of get why people are resisting. I think that while a statement of values document may be helpful, there is a certain amount of trust in our people that we need to have. I think that you can hire nice people and give them a purpose, goals, guidelines, and a company culture that supports being sincerely kind and welcoming. But, you really can't force people to be sincere and they know it.  Especially if this seems to be coming from the top down, I can see how that approach might feel way over controlling to partners even if they personally agree with the concept.

Maybe you could suggest an integrated process for drafting a statement of values. They will almost certainly be similar to what you have in mind, and perhaps even better with the input of the entire staff. And you will get more buy in that way, right?


Thanks again Rachel

I think I'm starting to get it though not without a struggle! ;-) I was sitting in a couple of meetings yesterday and one thing I think I realised was how different a place I am coming from compared with the rest of the team. I mean in the sense of the difference between being a company founder (lets not even concern ourselves with ex CEO etc) and being a team member or employee. They have a whole bunch of concerns they are wrestling with which are very different to those that I have wrestled with in the last 20 years. Many of these concerns in both cases may simply be internal struggles i.e. not necessarily based on what is actually happening. Unfortunately that doesn't necessarily make them any less impactful!

The fact of having adopted Holacracy does not erase this difference. In fact if anything the new levels of transparency and distributed leadership make it more obvious rather than less. Before I was potentially living in a world which didn't exist i.e. my idea of how we were all seeing the shared project. Now I'm living in a world which feels at least a little closer to reality. I have no idea how this will change over the medium to longer term. We've been experimenting with Holacracy for nearly a year and thinking about it for much longer but we only moved to full adoption in November so it's still very early days.

Changes are already afoot including what happened in yesterday's meetings! The rough plan at the moment is that I will hold a role with a domain over a document which may become a manifesto. This will contain a set of our broad values and approaches to what we are doing.

The real practical work will take place in another circle called 'Culture & Life' with the purpose of "A supportive, empathetic, and healthy campus" That circle has a domain over a document they are calling "Good Sportsmanship Guide" which is about day to day behaviours e.g. holidays, working hours etc. Although this will have some sort of policy link to the manifesto document when it comes into existence the decisions about practical implications and agreements now feel very much more shared. All the team members involved in this decision seemed super happy about it. This was one of the moments where I realised the different places we were coming from because it didn't hold so much personal significance for me but I could see it was super important for them. So be it. :-)

As you have suggested there is another accompanying policy which concerns changes to this 'Good Sportsmanship Guide' which can only happen via a governance process.

Rachel Hunt

Thanks for the update. I'm really glad you're making progress on this issue. 
I certainly know what you mean about the internal world and priorities of the founder being very different from the internal world and priorities of team members. 
Before Holacracy, I felt personally responsible not only for my personal work and the overall direction of the business, but I also tried to be a trainer and mentor (almost a parent) to every staff member. It was exhausting constantly trying to guess what each person needed to fuel their personal and professional growth.  What was worse, many of my people were young and used to having their work spoon fed to them, so I felt responsible to teach them how to create and follow through with their projects, ect. And I had to always be ready to catch the ball when/if they dropped it.
One of the things that I like about Holacracy is that staff members are now given the space, the time, and a process to express what they need. That frees me up from trying to read their minds. Also, getting everyone involved in creating governance makes them so much more invested in following the rules that they helped to create. 
I hope you'll keep us posted on the solutions you've found!


Certainly will