Value Cards and Knowing Yourself

Paul Ingram

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 10 years, and my experience running the Advanced Management Program (AMP) at Columbia Business School Executive Education, has focused closely on the importance of values in an organization, and more granularly, the specific values that individuals hold. During AMP, 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.

Executives talking around a table

We have been using a process for over a decade in AMP 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 of the AMP, years after they have completed the program, who still carry their Values Card with them, though ironically they have almost all perfect recollection of their eight values in any case. There is obviously an intrinsic value in these Values Cards.

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 similarly similar choices. The grand lesson we can infer is that as humans typically we have “more in common than divide 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 we have done with Columbia MBA students, over a many years of intakes, shows that the single strongest predictor of who will be friends with who on the program is if they have similar value priorities.

This prioritizing 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 strong and weak fit with a particular organization, that you will need to pay the weak fit individual as much as 40% more 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 plainly 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.

With diversity in mind, it is important that senior managers and leaders are able to manage the values gap. Having identified participant’s values at AMP, we focus on tools to help them to make connections to others who may have 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 behavior 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 approach to delivering better leadership in organizations.

Paul Ingram is the Kravis Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. He is the Faculty Director of the Advanced Management Program at Columbia Business School Executive Education.