Around the world, our values have a profound influence on how we act – and on the character of our organizations.
Throughout our lives, we face choices, challenges and opportunities that reveal our character, motivation and personality. These can range from life-changing, defining-moment type choices to a constant drumbeat of smaller, less dramatic decisions. However, every decision is informed and guided by the principles we believe in and consider to be most important – namely our values, which are continually working away in our subconscious.
Over the last 25 years, I have travelled to over 180 countries exploring how values define behaviors, relationships and culture. I have discovered that values can define a nation’s history and culture – and underpin their contemporary contribution to global influence and society (and vice versa). I have seen up-close how values shape the lives of people, and how individuals, organizations and communities use them to drive much-needed change and evolve into something better than before.
Learning from the values of nations
My lifetime’s work is based on the foundation that we make our decisions according to our values, and to illustrate them, I show you the world. Each and every nation is an illustration of a value. From this base, we can define our individual values and use them to inform our own decision-making.
For example, US entrepreneurialism stems from a centuries-old promise that has compelled immigrants to explore new geographical, scientific and technological frontiers. Hungarian competitiveness arises from a history of invasion and conquest dating back to the 13th century. South African forgiveness shows us that only contrition and meaningful change can address the injustices of the past. Elsewhere, it is Chinese pragmatism that has taught us to steer a steady course in the face of unrelenting change. There are revealing and insightful lessons to be learned from the values of every country.
Three truths about values
Across my research into values, I have found three tenets that hold true.
1 In countries, companies and communities, values are deeply entrenched
Borders may shift, political movements may come and go, but values remain the irreducible core of national culture and identity, sustaining countries, and their people, through crisis and change.
My book, The Values Compass, emerged before there was a hint of war in Eastern Europe and yet I had already identified freedom as a key value for Ukraine: Ukrainians have been persecuted for so long that they never take their liberty for granted. With Russia, on the other hand, fortitude is not merely a value, it is a way of life. Strength is power, and a necessary component of survival.
Similarly, every country responded according to its own unique set of values during the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK was characteristically steadfast, the US pivoted until its response was effective, South Korea reacted with dynamism. After the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, British steadfastness was on display once again, maintained throughout the mourning period and funeral.
2 Our values are everything
Values are our modus operandi, our way of relating with others, of making decisions and shaping our lives – so the deeper our understanding of our values, the better. It is almost impossible to be the best, most complete version of yourself – both inside and outside of work – without an appreciation of your own values, and those of the people around you. Values help to explain your life. They are ingrained in us as children, before evolving and being added to throughout adult life.
3 We are more similar via our values than we think
Beliefs divide, but values can unite. It is the stages of life – adolescence through to midlife and then the third age – and the experiences we have during those stages that can alter our values, rather than the work we do or the locale that we do it.
Because of this, values can help us to understand other people. Disputes that are rooted in a clash of values can often be resolved by understanding and empathizing with others. Values provide a neutralizer, offering a mechanism to settle personal dilemmas and make challenging life decisions, by guiding us toward a happier, more successful and fulfilling life, as his holiness the Dalai Lama has said.
Building values within our organizations
Just as values sustain and shape the nations of the world, they are also fundamental for leaders, employees and organizations, because they provide a shared cultural foundation. My research has found that a company with a clear purpose and strong values can attract and retain a following of loyal customers and employees.
When there is a strongly held set of values within an organization, its leaders – as well as its employees – feel they are part of something far bigger than a commercial opportunity or business transaction. Whatever an uncertain future holds, talent will shine, and change will be achieved when leaders and employees lead values-driven lives aligned to their organizations. This is the kind of process some of the world’s most influential companies have been through to define who they are and what they stand for. Visionary leaders have told me they use values to inform decision-making on everything from strategy and sustainability, to product innovation and development, and organizational design.
An example is Ajay Banga, the former executive chairman of Mastercard, who showed that it is truly possible to think of the base of the pyramid; to support financial inclusion and growth for all. This has been demonstrated in the areas Mastercard chooses to focus time, energy and resources, creating a virtuous circle. It is also reflected through the work of the phenomenal Mastercard Foundation, which is shifting the narrative of how the world understands and interacts with the African continent. Its president and chief executive is the remarkable Reeta Roy – someone who has recognized her values from an early age – and under her leadership, the Foundation begins with its values, setting its course accordingly.
Then there is Levi Strauss’s president and chief executive, Chip Bergh. It is apparent for all to see that Bergh’s personal values align closely with the company’s: it has followed the values of empathy, integrity, courage and originality since it was founded in 1873, something that he says attracted him to the organization in the first place. Previously, Bergh has spoken passionately about the need for companies that are “committed to a moral compass and to doing the right thing”.
Unilever is committed to the sustainability consequences of its business for the next seven generations. Its values define how it does business. This was true when Paul Polman was at the helm, and it is even more so now. All Unilever employees are expected to uphold the company’s values – integrity, respect, responsibility and pioneering – as brand ambassadors.
Personal identification of values
If talking about the values of entire nations, world leaders or organizations feels too abstract, rest assured that the exploration of values also translates to a deeply personal level. People everywhere are making values-based decisions every day – possibly without even recognizing it. When you actively acknowledge your personal values you can use them to inform how you pursue your dreams, manage relationships, focus your time and align your priorities.
I write about a values compass because once you have clearly defined your values, the hard thinking is done – there is no excuse to say you don’t know what you want in life, or how to make a difficult decision. You have a compass to guide you through the twists and turns of life.
As you begin to define your values, remember to identify only as many as you can commit to and carry with you, in heart and mind. Whittle your list down to five core values which are intrinsic to you – beliefs you cannot live without. You may wish to use the following exercises and questions, asked in the correct setting and answered honestly, to identify your values.
- Name one of your heroes. You are likely to appreciate the values they display.
- Think of the last time you felt violated in some way (or the first time). You were likely close to a core value then.
- What would you want said or written at your eulogy? Is this reflected in how you spend your time?
If you have a list of values longer than five, make sure you identify the difference between those that are merely important to you and those that are fundamental. Take guidance from people close to you – friends, colleagues, family. Think about each value painstakingly, considering how you would feel if it were taken away from you.
Naturally, these defined values will begin to shape your purpose, for values build your mission and inform your actions. They allow you to stand tall in decision-making, providing consistency and continuity to your teams.
Uniting your organization under a key value
Leaders face an interesting paradox: how can they ensure their workforce has diversity of thought, while uniting everyone under key values? Both are essential. Often it is extremely powerful to decide as a company, with consensus, what you stand for – whether it be originality, teamwork, integrity or something else. When you are really aligned to core values throughout your organization, your employees and customers can see it. One approach is to survey all employees around their five core values, identifying what bubbles up consistently – integrity, for example. When looking at a united vision or purpose, there may be many paths to the same destination, which brings in creativity, opportunity and possibility. The reason that five core values are encouraged, rather than just one, is to ensure there is diversity, while also having focus.
Another approach is for a leadership team to define what their organization stands for. This quickly filters down. A word of warning, however – a key reason that values are abandoned by employees is when leaders claim to stand for one thing but behave differently. If, as a leader, you behave in way opposed to your values, you are not only lying to your teams but also yourself.
At an organizational level, getting down to a handful of core values is like defining the DNA of the institution. When you build up from that foundation, with a congruent approach across language, reward and recognition metrics, and organizational design, you create an ecosystem that shapes an organization.