Values & Culture

Values Alignment between Individuals and the Organisation


vabioAlthough every individual comes into the world with some innate personality traits, for our entire life we also ‘drink-in’ the experiences that are fed to us by our senses which slowly start to create our beliefs and attitudes, and shape our general behaviour. 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, 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 for 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 behaviour “kind,” “honest” or “fair” on the positive side, or perhaps does this behaviour 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

One of the first major choices we make as an adult is which groups/organisations we will choose to connect with, and we therefore have to determine the extent to which that group’s values are “aligned” with ours. The word “aligned” here simply means “broadly consistent with” as any group’s values are unlikely to match exactly with ours. This assessment of broad alignment is not an easy thing to do for most people because organisational values are collective 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, organisational values seek to define the acceptable standards which govern the behaviour of individuals within the group. These values are sometimes discovered through an exercise of planning and forethought and may be set up in quite formal ways, potentially leading to published statements about the values or at least a “motto,” slogan or list of values that a given group deems to be worthy. However, it is just as likely that the group’s values have “evolved” over time and are embedded in some ways in a “collective culture.”

Whether derived formally or informally, the argument is that without such, individuals will pursue behaviours that are more in line with their own individual value systems, which may lead to behaviours that the group doesn’t want 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 a group together, thereby creating greater focus and energy or momentum towards the stated goals. This assumes, of course, that the values are broadly in line with its purpose or mission, and the vision that it is trying to achieve.

So to summarise, the articulated values of a group/organisation (eg. a church or para-church group) can provide a framework for the collective leadership to encourage common norms of behavior which will support the achievement of the group’s goals and mission. However, individuals need to “buy into” these values in order for them to have their intended effect.

How do organisational values work in practice?

In general, group values tend to be about the behaviour of people 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). There are many groups 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 organisations 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. The Salvation Army was criticised when it moved in the recruitment market and apparently de-emphasized its focus on temperance.

If an individual finds that the groups’s values differ from his or her own values then he or she will have to decide how to 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 a place with these kinds of values or this culture?” Hence, if individuals find that the conflict between what they think is right and what the group is doing is too great, they may have to make decisions that could affect their association with that group.

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

  1. The individual stands up for personally held beliefs, refusing to engage in actions that he/she thinks are wrong.
  2. The individual compromises on personally held beliefs by turning a blind eye to what he or she believes to be wrong and tries to avoid doing anything which creates feelings of guilt.
  3. The individual tries to influence the organisation to change its values or behaviour.

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 organisation. One of the best ways of doing this is to identify ways in which a new or different value may better enable the organisation to fulfill its goals.

Examples of organisational values (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 organisations. 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 behaviour or the behaviour 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 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 groups that like to make the value of harmony central to the culture but in general, this tends to apply most in groups where people matter.

2. Independence

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Independence, they are typically 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 groups that like to make the value of independence central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in smaller organisations where the freedom to think laterally and multi-task is important.

3. Tradition

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Tradition, they are typically 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 groups that like to make the value of tradition central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in larger institutional organisations such as Government enterprises of all kinds, older Christian denominations, for example.

4. Achievement

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Achievement, they are typically 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 groups that like to make the value of achievement central to the culture but in general this tends to apply most in very goal-focused organisations of all kinds. Examples would be the armed forces, missional or para-church groups, for example.

5. Power

Where people’s values cluster mostly around Power, they are typically 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 groups 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 organisations (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 organisations can be slotted into one of the five categories above, although in some cases they may have more than one value at the centre 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 culture frustrating. For those people who would like to look at these values in more depth, the Values Indicator at 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 sometimes either align or clash with the values of other individuals or with the wider organisation 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 values (if they deem the effort to be worthwhile). In all cases, the greater the values overlap and consistency, the better, more productive and happier outcome for the person and the group concerned.

© 2012. Dr. Jon Warner. Adapted and used with permission.

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience.  He has an MBA and a PhD in Organisational Psychology

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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