The Values Connection

If you pick up a book on organizational design that was written in the last 15 years or so, it’s almost a certainty that the author is going to tell you two of the most important things you can do as a leader are:

  1. Define your organizational values.
  2. Find people who demonstrate those values.

It’s good advice. Research shows that if you survey 1000 people, find out what their values are, and then find out what the values of the organizational leaders are, you’ll see some things. Specifically, you’ll discover that the more closely aligned the employees’ values align with those of leadership, the more committed they’ll be and the longer they’ll last.

So yes, if you’re hiring, you want to find people whose values align with those of the organization. But there are a couple of problems with that.

  1. The effects aren’t huge. It’s no accident they survey hundreds of people when they run these studies. The more they survey, the more likely it is they’ll find an effect, and it often takes that many to say with confidence there is a difference.
  2. In a tight labor market, you might not be able to fill a team with people whose values align with the organization’s.

If you’re not able to find people whose values align perfectly with those of the company, you’ll have to work with the people you have. Instead of seeking values alignment, what you can do with the people you have is values clarification. This is where you survey people on their personal values, find out what’s important to them, and then ask them to connect those to the work they do.

Someone values family? Ask them how the work they do contributes to them being a good parent or spouse.

Someone values contribution and making a difference? Have them explore how their role makes a difference to their co-workers, the organization, the customers, and society.

Someone values accomplishment? You get where this is headed.

The good news is that the data for people clarifying and then elaborating their values are much stronger than the data on values alignment and congruence. Very small experimental studies (e.g., 30 participants in a group) have shown that, when people connect to what’s important to them, they show greater commitment and follow-through in stressful situations.

People’s values may not always align perfectly with those of the organization. However, by having people clarify their own values and encouraging them to make a connection between them and the work they do, you can develop a more committed and fulfilled workforce. And yes, you will find people whose values are misaligned for your organization and their role in it. The good news is that they’ll be more likely to select themselves out and find employment elsewhere.

As organizational leaders, we rightfully expect that employees will adapt to meet the needs and demands of the job. However, the more we can allow people to find their self-expression while meeting those needs and demands, the more we’ll have workforces that are committed, engaged, and happy.