The Importance of Values Alignment to Performance at Work

Whatever you think about Ayn Rand, it’s hard to argue with her idea that happiness is living in alignment with our values.

She wrote:

achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.

I Did It My Way

Values relate to our core beliefs about life and ultimately act as internal measures about how our life is going, and whether we need to take corrective action.

When we’re not living in accordance with our values, it feels like something is broken. We can feel more tension in the body. We are more susceptible to bouts of anxiety, sadness, and depression.

When we are living in accordance with our values, things seem to flow like water. We will still face difficulty, but we’ll do so in alignment with our core selves, so weathering the storm becomes easier.

It’s as Frank Sinatra sang:

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew

When I bit off more than I could chew

But through it all, when there was doubt

I ate it up and spit it out

I faced it all, and I stood tall

And did it my way

Sinatra lived in accordance with his values, and despite its challenges, he could look back with few regrets, and smile.

A Note on Inherited Values

Now, for the purpose of this article, we’ll put aside where those values came from.

It is likely that many of your values were simply bestowed upon you by family, friends, and society, and you may have never challenged them.

For example, so many of my first-generation Australian peers have been raised to believe that acquiring real estate is the pathway to happiness (!), and so they find themselves working 80-hour weeks in the pursuit of more brick and mortar, never stopping to reflect on whether or not this is actually making them happier, or just making them financially richer (the science doesn’t support the idea that more money, beyond US$75,000 per year, makes us happier).

But we’ll park this topic for another day, and assume that you have reflected on your core values, and you’re satisfied with them.

Universal Human Values

The Theory of Basic Human Values, proposed by Shalom Schwartz in 1992, argued that there are ten universal values that can be organized into four higher-order groups.

1. Openness to change

  • Self-Direction Independent thought and action — choosing, creating, exploring.
  • Stimulation Excitement, novelty and challenge in life.

2. Self-enhancement

  • Hedonism Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
  • Achievement Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
  • Power Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.

3. Conservation

  • Security Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.
  • Conformity Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate social expectations or norms.
  • Tradition Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides.

4. Self-transcendence

  • Benevolence Preserving and enhancing the welfare of those with whom one is in frequent personal contact (the ‘in-group’).
  • Universalism Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.

5. Other

  • Spirituality was considered as an additional eleventh value, however, it was found that it did not exist in all cultures.

Some of these values are in conflict, and we will value some of them much more than others. For example, somebody who highly values power, hedonism, and achievement is likely to value self-transcendence and enhancing the welfare of others much less.

Where you land on these scales should help you inform the kind of work that you do, who you choose to work for, and so on.

However, a 2014 study on Aligning and Propagating Organizational Values found that the top 25 companies in Business Today’s rankings at the time did not map their values to these universal individual values.

You can take a shortened version of the Schwartz Value Survey here.

Generic Values in Corporate America

When it comes to work, Fortune 500 companies share the same old recycled values.

Integrity, Respect, Excellence, Communication, and Teamwork feature highly on the walls of companies around the world, but they have all but lost their meaning. If you need to remind your people to have integrity and respect, perhaps you need to revisit your recruitment practices.

By the way, these were Enron’s core values — how did that turn out?

Values Alignment at Work

When you have values alignment it’s like trying to push-start a car with two people pushing from the rear. When you don’t, it’s like one is pushing from the rear and one from the front — either the car doesn’t start or somebody gets run over.

But the abovementioned generic values don’t really provide much guidance when it comes to decisions around who to hire, or where we’d like to work.

More nuanced work values that speak to how we work should be considered. For example, at my consultancy, Collective Campus, we defined some of our core work values back in 2018 as follows. These have since evolved, but for the purposes of this article, let’s run with it.

1. Experimentation

We believe in the power of experimentation, in challenging the status quo, in optimising and continuously improving — every day — in order drive long-term sustainable growth and impact.

2. Extreme Ownership

We don’t make excuses. We don’t pass the blame to external people, factors or events. We take extreme ownership for our work. We take responsibility for all outcomes, put the customer first and always look for ways to solve problems.

3. Persistence

River cuts through rock not through power but through persistence. We drive relentlessly towards delivering on our mission, seeing obstacles in our way as necessary to help us learn, grow, build character, differentiate ourselves and move us forward.

4. Impact

Purpose is the world’s greatest performance enhancer. As such, we focus on the work that matters — work that unlocks people’s potential so that they can create more impact for humanity.

5. Empathy

We demonstrate compassion, fairness and respect by standing in each other’s and our customer’s shoes before making and acting on decisions.

6. Self-Belief

We believe that a team of committed, cross-functional people with a growth mindset, an intense customer-centric focus and a culture of rapid experimentation has no limits on what it can achieve.

7. Emotional Intelligence

We demonstrate emotional awareness and intelligence in all of our interactions and believe that talents and abilities can be developed through effort, intentional learning and persistence. We don’t let ego get in the way of meaningful progress.

8. Gratitude

We show gratitude for the freedom we’re fortunate enough to have to practice these values, unlike many less fortunate people around the world. We work towards giving more people these opportunities and always take pause to celebrate both our and our clients’ wins.

9. Radical Transparency

We engage in thoughtful disagreement and exchange ideas without creating lasting conflict, even when ideas are controversial, based on a guiding philosophy of ‘strong opinions, weakly held’. We provide constructive feedback to each other and our clients empathically so that we get better as individuals, as a company and as our clients’ trusted partner.

10. Outcomes Over Hours

We care about outcomes over hours and productivity over presence. It’s not about where you work, or when you work. It’s all about sh*t getting done.

Lifestyle Values

The final value leads me to lifestyle values — the freedom to work remotely, to work your own hours, to take time off after you’ve become a father for the first time, to go surfing when the swell is pumping, to work in another city, and so on.

Such values are not at all dissimilar to what you’d consider with romantic relationships. Do we both want to live near the beach, and have a dog, for example?

Many moons ago, while I worked for EY, it was common for talented 20 and 30-somethings to leave the firm and head to industry, typically to one of Australia’s big four banks. The primary reason was typically better work-life balance.

Using Your Values

Clearly, at my consultancy, we’re going to shy away from perfectionists who work on things long after they’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, and instead, opt for people who like to move fast, learn fast, and keep adapting.

We’re going to shy away from people who like to make excuses and blame circumstances and other people and opt for people who are solution-oriented, not problem-oriented.

We’re also going to look to hire people who have done the work when it comes to becoming more aware of their innate reactions to things and has learned how to temper their emotions in a way that creates space for open communication and tolerance of healthy conflict.

Co-Founder Conflicts

Similarly, if you’re starting a business and one of your core values is empathy for the customer, but your co-founder is all about making money at the expense of the customer, well it’s probably not going to be a prosperous long-term union.

So, what does the science say about all of this?

Academic works point to several positive relationships between values alignment and performance, including.

  • Greater job satisfaction
  • Greater engagement
  • Lower burnout
  • Team performance

A 2008 study by Australian Catholic University also proposed that values alignment may not just be an important integral part of organisational change strategies; it could well be the bedrock, the foundation, on which all truly successful organizational change depends.

Call to Action

  • Take the time to define your individual values. Consider using the Schwartz Values Survey provided above, but also reflect on some of your deeper, more nuanced values — especially when it comes to how you work, and lifestyle factors.
  • If you’re the leader of a team, do the work to clearly define your values, above and beyond the generic, and reference this when hiring new, and evaluating your current team members.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur, consider whether you are working in alignment with your values or not, and take corrective action.
  • If you’re an employee, consider whether the values of the organization align with your own, and whether or not you need to take corrective action.

When we live and work in accordance with our values, we are flowing like water, and living a purposeful, intentional, and aligned life.