In today’s world there is perhaps an exaggerated nervousness about the differing values that different groups observe. There is a tribal fear of ‘other’ that unsettles many and causes defensive reactions. After a long period of cultural integration we are seeing a reversal of that trend.
From an organizational perspective, this is a peculiar reaction. My research over the last ten years has focused closely on the importance of values in an organization and, more granularly, the specific values that individuals hold. During the Advanced Management Program at Columbia Business School, a four-week program for senior global leaders, we explore individual values closely and see that participants are notably affected by identifying the values that are key to them and the impact that can have on how they act and react.
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At the program, we have been using a process for over a decade that, through one-to-one coaching, allows participants to highlight their eight key values, which they note on a Values Card. I continue to meet former participants years after they completed the program, who still carry their Values Card with them, though ironically they almost all have perfect recollection of their eight values in any case. There is obviously an intrinsic value in these Values Cards.
More in Common than Divides Us
From a research perspective, the practice of highlighting participants’ values has allowed us the opportunity to gather a large amount of values data. We have identified approximately 250 words or phrases that recur frequently across the Values Cards. Given that participants on the program are drawn from a wide range of nationalities and cultural backgrounds—though all are necessarily successful in their chosen fields—the homogeneity of this values list is notable. But for a small handful of marginal exceptions, all the words chosen are unsurprising and uncontroversial. Other studies using the same process show that yet more diverse groups, across differing ages and social hinterlands, tend to offer up similar choices. The grand lesson we can infer is that, as humans, we typically have “more in common than divides us.”
This is an encouraging and hopeful starting point. Unfortunately, the devil is in the detail. Our research indicates that it is not the broad sweep of common values that hold people together (though not having that commonality certainly sets us apart), but our sense that we prioritize those values in a similar way. Work that we have done with Columbia Business School MBA students over many years of intakes shows that the single strongest predictor of who will become friends with whom on the program is if they have similar value priorities.
This prioritization of values extends beyond friendship, too. It is a clear marker of ‘fit’ within organizations as well. Research suggests that if you take two people who are broadly similar in work competence but show a strong and weak fit with a particular organization, you will need to pay the weak fit individual as much as 40 percent more in order to entice them to remain working in an organization they do not identify closely with than you would the person with the strong values fit. This clearly shows that in trying to achieve an efficient and stable employee base, having staff that enjoy the same values as each other and the organization is a clear cost advantage; though we need to be careful not to over homogenize and lose the benefits that diversity brings too. It is a delicate balance.
Managing the Values Gap
With diversity in mind, it is important that senior managers and leaders are able to manage the values gap. Having identified participants’ values on the Advanced Management Program, we provide tools to help them make connections to others with different values. These tools involve understanding others’ values and identifying bridges that connect them to one’s own values. It is critical that people can learn to use socialization methods to close gaps that will exist. This is key to resolving the leadership challenge of being true to oneself while at the same time performing effectively in different situations with different people.
Your values are your internal control system. When moments of crisis occur, we rarely have time to explore options and consider alternatives in any depth. It is our core values that we rely on to guide us. By knowing and understanding them explicitly from having been through these value identification processes, we are better able to make clear and satisfying decisions. Unethical behaviour most often occurs when your values are left unattended to. Your own values cue your best self.
This scientific approach to understanding values and culture underpins the Columbia Business School approach to delivering better leadership in organizations.