Are values really that important?

Organisations invest time and money in articulating their values so must consider that they are important yet very few individuals seem to do the same. Why is this?

This question was considered by over two hundred professionals and academics last month in a Harvard Business Review group discussion on LinkedIn which covered a multitude of surrounding issues and opinions.  Thank you to everybody that contributed and to Lucy Williams ( who produced this summary.

Values were defined as the water we swim in, the stimuli to all of our behaviours and essential foundations of an organisation.

Initially the discussion focussed on the link that values create between individual and organisation –employees and employers. It was suggested that an organizational value system is there to help reconcile conflicting requirements within and among groups of people (quality vs. quantity, project schedule vs. budget etc.). 
Safety was used as an example: our internal “warning mechanism” has been programmed to prevent us from knowingly damage ourselves. Organizations are system tuned to move forward and take individuals’ input to make decisions at team level. Therefore value systems provide balances and checks to create “collective warning systems” through this movement. Alongside this, recruitment was touched upon, arguing that it is beneficial to look at a ‘strategic value fit’ when employers recruit prospective employees.  The importance of organizations designing systems that would reinforce the values to the employees was also recognized.

There were a number of comments in support of shared values between employee and employer creating success and fluidity in an organization but also questions about how a company may implement their values throughout the entire employee population.  It was suggested that, if corporate values are to be the banner all employees bring into every situation, then they need to be meaningful at all levels to all employees, practiced at all levels, and continuously promoted. It was acknowledged that there can yet be huge disconnects between the stated values and the true actions of organizational leadership at any or all levels.  As such, the conscientious employee must be ever vigilant in assessing organizational behavior to determine if/how they wish to address concerns by confrontation, indifference or leaving.

The consequential extremes of this employee/employer value level are discussed in the thread in a situation where the company values are not implemented in practice by all employees. These values were identified as essentially ‘pretend’ – such as in ‘greenwash’ cases – they are orchestrated yet not implemented. Causes of this lack of implementation were felt to be based around lack of leadership, with a strong feeling that it was surely attainable and beneficial to reinforce values all the way to individual base level.

Despite this organisation/individual value alignment focus providing a great base, the discussion eventually moved to face the initial question – why do individuals not articulate their values as organisations do? It had been made clear that if a business and individual share similar values, positive results are seen. It also became clear that organisations benefit greatly from the reinforcement of explicit values – with no reason that an individual would not enjoy the same benefits. Both factors suggest that it would be beneficial for individuals to identify and live according to a set of values yet general consensus shows that few individuals acknowledge this.

A number of reasons were suggested for individuals not holding explicit value identification as a high priority: many individuals do not see the need to articulate their values; most/all people have an inner compass which navigates their path through life and as individuals (with their own emotions, psyche, etc) they each live values out of that inner well of values; there is no real need to articulate these values when they are inherent to behaviour as they are lived out; individuals find it easy to express from within themselves and values are evident in behavior; they are individual and personal and therefore not required to be sold to anybody else. On the other hand, an organisation, unlike an individual, does not have a soul with emotions – in fact it is not even an entity in itself, consisting only of the employees and dependent upon them to display its values.

Alongside this, it was suggested that individual values are probably more subliminal. People may not spend time and/or money articulating their values, however, their values are quite often reflected in their friends, their recreational activities, how they raise their children and how they approach the job market. People are drawn to other people’s values despite no overt disclosure, much the same as they are sometimes drawn to a company (they like what they see and it aligns). A company has to be more overt regarding its core values especially as it grows, as a way to determine how it does business, perhaps individuals do not have to do the same.

Both of these viewpoints were met with the argument that although it was clear that individuals do not need to explicitly identify their values to function – that there was no reason that it would not benefit them – infact – that it was likely that articulating our personal values so that we can live our lives in line with them would be a positive step to lead happier, more fulfilled, less stressed lives.

31Practices is a tool that does just that, enabling individuals to identify their core values and helping them to live according to these values, and helping translate organization values into day to day employee behaviour.  For more information please contact me at