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How Can Individual and Organizational Values Be Better Aligned?

Individual and Organizational Values

Although every individual comes into the world with some innate personality traits (the ‘nature’ side of the nature/nurture debate), for our entire life we also ‘drink-in’ the experiences that are fed to us by our senses which slowly start to evolve our beliefs and attitudes, and shape our general behavior (the ‘nurture’ side of the equation). Some of these experiences are given to us by our parents, teachers and other influential people who will often be instrumental in crystallizing our prevailing moral or ethical values in particular.

For our purposes here, a value is deemed to be:

”a belief in action or a choice that individuals make (consciously or unconsciously) about what is good or bad, worthy or not worthy, important or not important”

Ultimately, we all form a coherent and relatively consistent set of personal values to which we can regularly refer to make almost all of our moral judgments or decisions about the world and the future situations that we encounter. Hence, we might ask questions of ourselves in situations which we encounter such as: is this behavior “kind,” “honest” or “fair” on the positive side, or perhaps does this behavior cause “hostility,” is it “uncharitable” or is it “arrogant” on the negative side. Of course, we may also look to impose our own values on others at times, both directly by informing people about what we value or believe and indirectly in our actions (participating or not participating in discussions in particular ways).

Determining values in the workplace

One of the first major choices we all have to make as an adult is about which organization we will choose to work for or with, and we therefore have to quickly determine the extent to which its values are “aligned” or not. The word “aligned” here simply means “broadly consistent with” as any espoused organizational values are unlikely to match exactly. This assessment of broad alignment is not an easy thing to do for most people because organizational values are collective ones and may be well or poorly defined. In addition, they may be readily on show in some cases and very much hidden from view in others (and all points in-between these two extremes).

At least on the face of it, organizational values seek to define the acceptable standards which govern the behavior of individuals within the organization. This governance exercise is sometimes carried out with much planning and forethought and may be set up in quite formal ways, potentially leading to published statements about organizational values or at least a “motto,” slogan or list of values that a given enterprise deems to be worthy. However, it is just as likely that any organizational values have “evolved” over time and are embedded in some ways in a “corporate culture.”

Whether derived formally or informally, the argument is that without such organizational values, individuals will pursue behaviors that are more in line with their own individual value systems, which may lead to behaviors that the organization doesn’t wish to encourage (or at least pull it in different directions, thereby reducing focus and energy towards its goals). Conversely, a clearly articulated statement of values can draw an organization together, thereby creating greater focus and energy or momentum towards the goals of the enterprise. This assumes, of course, that the organization’s values are broadly in line with its purpose or mission, and the vision that it is trying to achieve.

So to summarize, the articulated values of an organization can provide a framework for the collective leadership of an organization to encourage common norms of behavior which will support the achievement of the organization’s goals and mission. However, individuals need to “buy into” these values in order for them to have their intended effect.

How do organizational values work in practice?

In general, organizational values tend to be about the behavior of people in the organization and the decisions that are made. For example, Google (the Internet search engine) is famous for its motto ’Do no evil’ (which is quite similar to the medical professions ‘Do no harm’ of course). The Body Shop is known for not selling products which have been tested on animals. There are many voluntary and mutual organizations (like charities, and trades unions) which exist because of particular values that their founders and supporters believed in. For example, the Salvation Army was built on the value of “temperance.”

The big challenge for organizations is to live up to these values. When Google agreed to the Chinese Government’s requirement for it to restrict access to some websites when it set up in China, it was accused of not living up to its values. And when Body Shop was taken over by L’Oreal many people pointed out that its new parent didn’t seem to share the same corporate values. Even the Salvation Armey was criticized when it moved in the recruitment market and apparently de-emphasized its focus on temperance.

If an individual finds that the organization’s values differ from his or her own values then he or she will have to decide how he or she will act. This means asking searching questions such as “How strongly felt are my beliefs?” and “Where would I draw the line if I were asked to do something I didn’t believe in?” or more broadly, “Can I thrive in an organization with these kinds of values or this culture?” Hence, if the individual ever finds that the conflict between what he or she thinks is right and what the organization is doing is too great, he or she may have to make a decision that could affect his or her job.

Ultimately, where there is a conflict between what an individual believes in and the organization’s values there are only three realistic choices:

  1. The individual stands up for his or her beliefs, and possibly loses his or her job, because he or she refuses to engage in actions that he/she thinks are wrong.
  2. The individual compromises on his or her beliefs by turning a blind eye to what he or she believes is wrong and tries and/or avoids doing anything which makes him or her feel too guilty.
  3. The individual tries to influence the organization to change its values or behavior.

The first two choices are commonplace but the last is much more rarely considered. In practice, there is effectively nothing to stop any individual from trying to influence the values of the organization. One of the best ways of doing this is to identify ways in which a new or different value may better enable the organization to fulfill its business goals. For instance, Apple computers built its business on the back of its commitment to the values of “passion” and the growth of “Fairtrade” products in Starbucks coffee shops and elsewhere has been based on the fair treatment of people basis of the brand, something that has given many other companies that subscribe to these principles a distinct market advantage.

So, what are some examples of organizational values?

There are obviously many values which an organization may select as being important to its overall mission, vision or success in general. However, there are two very useful over-arching models that are worth describing, both of which have been highly influential on many organizations of all sizes and types and all over the world. The first of these is:

The 7 Virtues model

The seven virtues were initially evolved by Greek philosophers and most notably Aristotle and Plato. The four initial virtues were temperance, wisdom, patience, and humility and these were deemed to be overall positive attitudes for a person to develop. Later writers, especially in the early Jewish and Christian faiths, added three more virtues to this list—these were diligence, kindness, and charity. Although all seven of these values were expressed as moral themes for all individuals to aspire collectively, they have been widely adopted by organizations and have been interpreted and/or given additional meaning in many cases. Let’s look at each of these therefore in a little more depth and by describing these values in the way most commonly seen in modern organizational life today.

1. Temperance

This is also sometimes expressed as restraint or self-control. In business, this has often been defined as a constant “mindfulness” both personally and towards others. It is also about paying attention to people and surroundings but essentially involves practicing self-control, moderation, and deferred gratification. This value is therefore ultimately about the proper moderation between self versus public interest. Many non-profits, especially in the public service arena and people support realm, adopt this value.

2. Wisdom

This is also sometimes expressed as knowledge or fidelity. In business, this has often been defined as being about being honest with oneself, one’s colleagues, and to people in general. This is therefore the ability to refrain from being distracted and influenced by temptation or corruption when considering what to do. Constant education and personal betterment are considered to be the best paths to develop this ability. Many “knowledge-based” organizations such as research or consulting companies adopt this value.

3. Patience

This is also sometimes expressed as peace and moderation. In business, this has often been defined as being quiet endurance including the effort to resolve conflicts and injustice in a calm and peaceful manner (as opposed to resorting to irritation and hostility). In essence then, this value is about creating a sense of peaceful stability rather than confrontational antagonism. Many large technical or scientific organizations (such as the pharmaceutical industry for instance) adopt this value.

4. Humility

This is also sometimes expressed as modesty and selflessness. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. It is a spirit of self-examination and being charitably disposed towards people you disagree with (including giving credit where credit is due). In business, this often includes taking on tasks which are difficult, tedious or unglamorous and being committed to promises, no matter how big or small they may be.  Many people-service organizations, such as charities and fund-raising enterprises adopt this value.

5. Diligence

This is also sometimes expressed as persistence and faith. This is being quiet and careful in your actions and work. It is therefore a calmly decisive work ethic, involving steadfastness in belief and the persistence or tenacity not to give up. In business, this often includes managing personal time and monitoring personal activities to guard against laziness. Many action-centered/project management or engineering type oriented organizations adopt this value.

6. Kindness

This is also sometimes expressed as hope and compassion. This is compassion and friendship for its own sake or empathy and trust without prejudice or resentment. In business, this also involves unselfish consideration towards others and voluntary kindness without bias or spite. This means having a positive outlook and cheerful demeanor, which in turn inspires kindness in others. Many public care organizations such as hospitals adopt this value.

7. Charity

This is also sometimes expressed as generosity or self-sacrifice. This term has taken on a narrower meaning in modern times being restricted to benevolent giving. However, this value is an unquestioning sense of belief in and generosity towards all others. In business, this means that this value has been used extensively to apply to encouraging and even celebrating diversity in people in all of its manifestations.  Many “giving” organizations inevitably adopt this value but so do many other non-profits or NGO’s for example.

Organizations may adopt one of these values as being paramount, or to be pursued first before others, or may pick two or even three of these as a set of core values. Only in rare cases would an organization try to encourage adherence to all seven of these values, as they often believe that they lack the resources to assist people in the journey needed if they were to take on too many values at once.

The 5 Values Model

With so much ground-breaking work on DNA sequencing in recent decades, some researchers have suggested that psycho-social development can be “mapped” in similar ways. One such model (developed by researchers such as Dr Clare Graves) has been the theory of human MEMES. This research suggests we can identify five broadly-based “cluster values” that are most commonly used by both individuals and organizations. These are harmony, independence, tradition, achievement and power. These five clusters (and the values language that they provide) can provide an extremely useful way to assess whether our current behavior or the behavior of those around us is consistent with our most important values and provides the opportunity to work towards any adjustments or changes that are likely to bring about greater alignment (or less personal stress or conflict).

Let’s look at these five clusters in a little more detail:

1. Harmony

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Harmony, they are typically most interested in nurturing relationships with people. This means that they are usually kind in nature, socially comfortable, sympathetic and altruistic. They can also be soft-hearted, overly idealistic, conflict-avoiding and uncritical at times. There are many specific organizations that like to make the value of harmony central to the culture but in general, this tends to apply most in organizations where people matter. This may be caring organizations, strong customer service businesses or enterprises that need and want lots of collaboration (volunteer fire-fighters, for instance).

2. Independence

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Independence, they are typically most interested in building and developing their personal knowledge and expertise. This means that they are usually conceptual, learning-oriented, innovation-focused and curious. They can also be insensitive, over-analytical, vague and uncommitted at times. There are many specific organizations that like to make the value of independence central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in smaller organizations where the freedom to think laterally and multi-task are important. This might include consulting organizations, research-based firms and many innovative start-up firms, for example.

3. Tradition

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Tradition, they are typically most interested in stability and structure and having clear personal goal-orientation in their life. This means that they are usually respectful of institutional structures, detail-oriented and highly responsible. They can also be over-cautious, over-security conscious and even negative at times. There are many specific organizations that like to make the value of tradition central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in larger intuitional-type organizations such as Government enterprises of all kinds, older and larger manufacturing firms or banks, for example.

4. Achievement

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Achievement, they are typically most interested in using endeavor and personal goal-orientation in their life. This means that they are usually practical, systematic, pragmatic and task-focused. They can also be pedantic, impulsive, skeptical and readily critical at times. There are many specific organizations that like to make the value of achievement central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in very goal-focused organizations of all kinds. These may be many and various but examples would be the army or navy and even many global multinationals, for example.

5. Power

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Power, they are typically most interested in the use and deployment of control (over people and tasks). This means that they are usually confident, thick-skinned, single minded and goal-driven. They can also be ego-centric, cold, unrelenting, and over-demanding at times. There are many specific organizations that like to make the value of power central to the culture, but in general, unlike the other four, power is often something that is pushed from the top in many organizations (and may flow from one individual such as the CEO). In addition, power is more likely to be a kind of values “turbo-charger” so that any of the above values may be turbo-charged by power.

In summary, according to MEMES research as it relates to values, most organizations can be slotted into one of the five categories above, although in some cases they may have more than one value at the center of the culture. Once again, this provides a different but useful vehicle for the individual to see whether or not his or her own personal values line up with this dominant value set. Hence, a person who values harmony may find it more difficult to work in an achievement culture or a person who values power may find a tradition-centered values culture frustrating. For those people who would like to look at these values in more depth, the values indicator at the website measures these value categories directly.


All individuals develop a set of personal values, which help them to make decisions in the world. These values can either sometimes well-align or clash with the values of other individuals at work or with the wider organization of which they are a part. Where a clear clash happens, individuals can elect to work in a different and more aligned climate, adjust their values somewhat or try to adjust or change the organizational values in their current enterprise (if they deem the effort to be worthwhile). In all cases, the greater the values overlap and consistency, it is usually a better, more productive and happier outcome for the person and the organization concerned.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. Jaimie StewartJuly 13, 2012 at 9:04 am

    The 21st century workplace is a compex juxtaposition between the expectations and experiences of the employee and the sole purpose of the organisation. A duality in oppostion over a commonality of purpose. Commonality of prupose is the mutual understanding of an organisations existence of purpose and purpose of existance. So if an Organisations sole purpose in existence is to make profit to susatin itself then in order to fill the vaccum left between the notion of encounter and understanding of commanility of purpose and to prevent the negation of opposing employee expectations a third expectation is created. That of a percieved shared consciousness – organisational values or the being of the organisation. The aim is to achieve congruence between the purpose and the being but ultimately the being will always be at the mercy of the purpose. There in lies the the conflict of contradiction.

    • Jon WarnerJuly 20, 2012 at 3:41 pm

      Yes there are many conflicting values in almost every organization with the profit motive being a powerful “interferer”. However, many organizations which put pwerful and attractive values first can get extraordinary performance, which tends to have the consequence of better profits than most or better returns to the shareholders.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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