A compass points to the word "VALUES"

Want to Detoxify the Workplace? Start By Stating What You Value

May 19, 2022

by Sherry A. Marts, PhD

The near-constant stream of stories about harassment, bullying, and toxic work environments in STEM can make it hard to imagine that those environments will ever change, much less how to change them. They exist in a system that produces and rewards the behavior, norms, and mores of the dominant culture (in most places, White male culture), and ignores or diminishes the experiences of members of marginalized groups.

The good news is that there are things that can be done to create the change that is needed for STEM workplaces to become more inclusive and equitable. A crucial first step is making explicit the values that form the basis for your own work and for the work of groups you lead.

We can start with acknowledging a basic conflict: that while STEM research is nearly always inherently collaborative, it usually takes place in a system that is hierarchical. In hierarchical systems, power — defined by Lexico as “the ability or capacity to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events” — is unidirectional. Orders go from the top down, and compliance is maintained primarily by fear and implicit or explicit threat. In collaborative settings, power is shared among members of a group, and ideas, plans, strategies, and implementation may flow up, down, and sideways. Power in collaborative groups is maintained by mutual agreement and cooperation.

Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a Michigan State University researcher and scholar who addresses the need to upend the traditional hierarchies of academia and industry, contrasts the gatekeeping roles of leadership in a hierarchy with the need for “groundskeeping” to create more humane workplaces. Gatekeeping emphasizes the importance of letting only the “right” people advance in a system. Groundskeeping requires paying attention both to the individuals doing the work and to how the work environment does or does not support both the individuals and their work. The transformation from gatekeeping to groundskeeping requires going beyond the “what” of STEM and digging deeply into both the “why” and the “how” of that work. How do we do our work? Why do we do it this way? How can we do it differently?

The answers to “How do we do our work?” include many implicit and unspoken behavioral norms. These are usually the norms of the dominant group. In STEM, that means the norms of White, straight, cisgender men. Norms strengthen group identity, and they reinforce the hierarchy, in part by defining who is in the group and who is not. Until behavioral norms are made explicit, they are one of the ways that individuals who are not members of the dominant group are regularly excluded. Making norms explicit lets the group decide which norms best serve the work of the group, and opens up the possibility of creating new norms.

Some examples of norms in STEM that are usually implicit:

  • Team meetings are always led by the most senior person present.
  • Open displays of emotion of any kind are not appropriate for the workplace.
  • Dress appropriately (but we won’t tell you what that means, you’ll have to figure it out by yourself).
  • Don’t complain about behavior that bothers you, particularly if it’s behavior by someone senior to you. Complaining is a sign that you just don’t fit in here.
  • If you’re a student or a postdoc, don’t expect to have a life outside of your work.

The first step to changing norms or creating new norms is to clarify and make explicit the core values that those norms are based on.

Values are the qualities, actions, and priorities that are fundamental to creating the work environment. Values determine how to decide what to do, what is most important to do, and how to do it. Identifying core values is fundamental to figuring out who you are and where you are going—as a group and as an individual. Values, like norms, should be explicitly stated. For teams or groups who are creating their first statement of values, it helps to begin by identifying the values of the individuals who comprise the group.

Google “values exercise,” and you’ll find a large number of articles and instructions for identifying values. What they have in common is: each person makes a list of their values for their career and their workplace and prioritizes the list. Rather than doing this as a brainstorming exercise, having group members do the exercise on their own allows everyone to take the time they need to create their values list without having to think out loud in front of the group.

Next the individual lists are compared and merged. When apparent conflicts arise, ask, “Is the value core to our work together?” If it is, look for ways to create a dynamic balance, a “both/ and” solution. The method outlined by Mind Tools offers a good way to begin by grounding values in experiences, starting with identifying times when you were most happy and most proud.

The next step is to take that list of values and the discussion you’ve had about values and turn it into a set of explicit statements that you can refer to when making decisions and setting norms. Now you have a declaration of values.

Two recent examples of values declarations, created by academic laboratories, serve as excellent models:

In both of these examples, the values statements were the result of collaboration by all members of each lab. Dr. Friedrich’s lab created their declaration in response to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. He says, “Although I have always striven to create a supportive, humane environment in my lab, I thought it was a good time to be more mindful and explicit in the ways lab members can expect support from me and from each other. We wanted to be more deliberate and explicit about our efforts to create an inclusive and supportive environment for each other in the lab. The statements you see on the website were created collaboratively with all of my lab members over the course of a few meetings. So they represent our collective commitment and reflect the input of undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, and career technicians. I expect they will continue to evolve as we think and do more.”

Values are a point of reference for creating a workplace culture. Jamie Notter, an expert on organizational culture, says “Your core values should be tied directly to your success, rather than being generally agreeable, and they should be lines in the sand that are not necessarily easy to get across. It should take some effort to uphold those values, otherwise why name them?”

Values are the starting point for creating change. Knowing your values, and the relevance of those values to achieving success, will inform how you set goals and prioritize desired results. In particular, values that explicitly address the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion provide the ground for making your workplace safe and inclusive. To be effective, those values must be acted upon on a daily basis, in everything from deciding on projects to changing how team members treat each other.


Headshot of Dr. Sherry MartsSherry A. Marts, PhD, is President and CEO of S*Marts Consulting, LLC, and she is a skilled workshop leader, speaker, and facilitator. Her background includes careers in biomedical research, science advocacy, and association management. She offers workshops on how to address harassment and bullying, how to act as an ally in professional settings, and how to facilitate inclusive meetings for diverse groups. Dr. Marts received her B.Sc. (Hons.) in applied biology from the University of Hertfordshire and her PhD in physiology from Duke University. She has been an AWIS member since 2001.


This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.