Values and Culture: Understanding People and Organisations

December 30, 2015 | By Maretha Prinsloo

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“The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

– Marcel Proust

Human behaviour is a complex matter. Observable behavioural tendencies represent only the tip of the iceberg. Social sciences endeavours to unpack this in order to understand and manage human functioning.

To effectively deal with people issues in the workplace we need to know, for example, what makes people tick; what they would find interesting and energising; how they will relate to one another; where they would feel comfortable yet stimulated enough to perform optimally; and whether they can buy into an organisation’s culture and values. Well-informed people decisions are bound to significantly improve the atmosphere at work, the organisation’s performance, as well as the engagement and retention of employees.

Individual and group differences

Social sciences, and Psychology in particular, have offered many theoretical models and practical tools to explain behavioural differences. These offerings largely consist of descriptive models and empirical findings which to some extent, lack predictive value. The models also tend to overlap and even contradict one another. Given the specific purpose involved, it is up to the practitioner to decide which models and tools to use.

Values and culture

A most useful perspective in this regard, though, revolves around the concepts of values and culture, or how individuals and groups perceive and organise information. Values can be described in terms of Plato’s criteria of what is regarded as good, beautiful and true. The concepts of values and culture are closely related and can almost be regarded as two sides of the same coin. The interrelationship between them is explained by Wilber’s Integral theory, or AQAL model. The concepts are also in vogue at the moment. In 2014 the Merriam Webster’s dictionary even identified “culture” as the most popular word of the year, and many recent organisational psychology publications have identified values and culture as keys to employee engagement. In fact, the recognition of value orientations is by no means new in Social sciences. Publications as early as the 1800s can also be found in this regard.

The Spiral Dynamics (SD) model

Although not unique, a popular and useful theoretical model dealing with the issue of values and culture, is the Spiral Dynamics (SD) theory of Clare Graves. According to the SD model, human awareness emerges in the form of increasingly inclusive and encompassing value systems. These can be represented as levels of a spiral or soft hierarchy, where each consecutive level incorporates and transcends the previous levels. The various levels of awareness are referred to as value systems, or perceptual filters, organising frameworks, belief structures, core intelligences, worldviews, value memes, mindsets, modes of adjustment or value orientations.

Each of the value orientations of the SD model forms complex systems of behaviour, beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and thoughts. A detailed description of the various value orientations of the SD model goes beyond the scope of this blog. However, the information offered by the SD model and the value orientations profiles of individuals and groups are ideal to identify those in the workplace who are best suited to deal with certain challenges such as: doing routine work in a team context; relentlessly pursuing goals under difficult circumstances; maintaining the status quo by ensuring quality and controlling risk in a reliable and structured manner; showing a customer orientation; flexibly generating new strategies, and persuasively creating value for all stakeholders; building relationships, developing others and creating harmony at work; as well as integrating and understanding the dynamics of the whole system to identity leverage points and to initiate change.

Value orientation as a catalyst

The concept of value orientation or worldview acts as a catalyst in how personality preferences and cognitive capabilities are applied. Someone with a particular level of cognitive capability may use that capacity to achieve seemingly opposite goals. For example, to either compete or to collaborate depending on their value orientation. A person’s perceptual framework or worldview, will also determine how their personality preferences are applied in various contexts.

Applying the concepts of values and culture at work

Individual and group differences rooted in diverse mental models or value orientations can effectively be capitalised on in the workplace. It can also be at the root of conflict, misunderstanding and the inability of some individuals to fit into an organisational culture. The assessment of value orientations is thus critical for the understanding and leveraging of cultural matters in the organisation.

Assessing value orientations

Cognadev has responded to a need in the market for assessing values and culture by creating an assessment tool which captures fundamental differences in the worldviews of people. The Value Orientations (VO) assessment technique is an online questionnaire which has been designed to transcend the transparency and manipulability of many other psychometric questionnaires. The VO is used for purposes of selection, placement, self-insight, coaching, team compilation, team building, employee engagement, succession, development, diversity management and determining organisational culture.

Cognadev also offers values training to professionals and employees to better understand their own and others’ worldviews. Contact Cognadev to find out more about the Value Orientation (VO) assessment and the associated leadership, team and organisational development courses.