Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Are You Out of Sync With Your Values?

Edgar Schein is a colossus for those of us who think hard about how people and organizations work. His core model explains corporate culture, and it’s one that we can take and use as we look to maximize our own potential and do work that makes a difference, work that matters.

Schein says you can understand an organization on three levels:

The first level is the Artifacts that we can see and experience when we come into an organization. It’s everything from the way people dress to the organizational chart, the layout of the office to the technology people are using.

The second level is what he calls the Espoused Values of the organization. That’s what the CEO goes on about in her speeches and what appears in the “help wanted” ads.

The final level, deeper and more elusive than the first two, is what Schein calls the Basic or Unspoken Assumptions. This is what shows up in the habits of the organization, the way people automatically behave. It’s the deeper rhythms of the organization that reflect what the organization truly values.

You can guess that when all three levels are in alignment, you have a powerful organizational culture. What we say is how we behave and the stuff around us supports the cultural and brand experience.

When these three levels don’t quite jive you get a weak culture. As you might suspect, there’s often a disconnect between the espoused values and the unspoken assumptions. (A classic case is “our people are our greatest asset” in an organization that clearly sacrifices employees on the altar of profit.) It also explains why slapping a bright coat of paint on the walls and having uncomfortable yet funky furniture in the reception area doesn’t make a dent in a corporate culture.

When all three levels are in alignment, you have a powerful organizational culture.

Where Are You Out of Sync?

Let’s apply Schein’s model to the way you’re showing up in your own life.

Start with the Espoused Values. “Personal values” has something of a life coach-y ring to it, but understanding what matters to you and what you want to be known for in this world can help you bring a more powerful version of yourself into play. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to go deeply into ways of uncovering and refining your values, but there are plenty of resources out there to help. I’m a particular fan of Dick Richard’s book, Is Your Genius at Work?

Once you’ve started getting clear on values, let’s go to the Artifact level and see just how those values manifest. How do you embody what you stand for, from the way you dress to how you arrange your workspace?

And from here, we drop to the Unspoken Assumptions. This is the hardest to understand, as you have to create the time and space to reflect on how you behave and to what degree that behavior is in sync with your espoused values. The extent of that challenge becomes apparent in Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit in which he cites a Duke University study that says at least 45 percent of our behavior is habitual. In other words, almost half of what we do, we do unthinkingly. (If this makes you stop and think, “who’s really running this thing called Me?” I’m right there with you.)

You have to create the time and space to reflect on how you behave.

Find Your Values With A “This/Not That” Test.

In my experience, most people aren’t clear on their own values. Even if they have a list, it’s often as vapid as any organization’s: empty words that speak to some sort of Platonic ideal that has no traction in reality and no impact on behavior. In other words, they exist at the “espoused” level rather than the “assumption” level.

An exercise taken from the world of branding might help. When I worked in the world of innovation, I would often work with a client to position a new product. Unfortunately, most clients had a vocabulary of less than six words to describe the positioning they wanted, not nearly as precise as we needed to be.

Most people’s values are often as vapid as any organization’s.
A simple “This/Not That” exercise helps. For instance, a client might say they wanted a new vodka to be “premium”. We would help them be more specific and descriptive by having them articulate pairs of what it was and wasn’t like. We’d upgrade “premium” to: “Its The Hamptons but it’s not Lake Como; it’s black but it’s not platinum; it’s evening but it’s not ‘after midnight’; it’s the 60s but it’s not the 90s; it’s Audi but it’s not Mercedes; it’s Justin Timberlake but it’s not George Clooney.”

We can use this tool to maximize our own potential. Reflect back on those times when you were at your best. Times when you were really showing up as the best, most powerful, most fully inhabited version of yourself. Times when you were doing Great Work. Write down five or so words that sum that up.

Now, for every word describing you at your best, pair it up with a word that is not the failed or opposite version of your Great Work, instead choose the ho-hum, mediocre version. For instance, here’s what is on my This/Not That list right now:

  • Step Forward not Hold Back
  • Playful not Serious
  • Loose not Tight
  • Curious not Knowing
  • Provocative not Sycophantic
  • “Bigger picture” not “it really matters”

There are two benefits in this exercise: First, it is grounded in how you actually show up, so you build your espoused values up from your behavior rather from some fantasy you have about what you actually think is important.  And secondly, it helps you start noticing the gap between your espoused values and what sub-optimal looks like.

What about you?

What are your “This/Not That” words?

Michael Bungay Stanier

more posts →
Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of Do More Great Work and a Senior Partner at Box of Crayons.
load comments (25)
  • Funk You Creative

    We are a recent startup and are now working on Guiding Principles and this is a great tool to make sure that we are aligned. Thanks for this!

  • Alex Turner

    Thanks for that. Found it worthwhile to get some form on ideas. Here’s mine for now –

    Educative not big headed know it all

    Honest not insensitive

    Focused not blinkered

    Contributor not an easy touch

    Open minded not gullible

    Compassionate not judgmental

  • Thomas Nordén

    I like “Open minded not gullible”

  • Aaron Morton

    Flow not distracted

    curious not critical

    ambitious not blinded

    good article and a great exercise. From my experience of working in a office environment the espoused values rarely out influence the unspoken assumptions if the head people setting the values are far away in another office somewhere. There is a disconnect that occurs where if you are not careful becomes an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.

    The Confidence Lounge

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    Nice one, Aaron. “Ambitious not blinded” is a subtle and useful pairing

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    Alex – the “for now” is a good point. My list has changed and become more focused and refined over time

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    A pleasure – glad it rang true for you

  • Aaron Morton

    Thanks Michael, Great website you have btw!

  • Paul Sohn

    Mine are the following!
    Excellent not mediocre
    Continuous learning not complacent
    Equipping not diminishing

  • Paul Sohn

    Definitely concur with you Aaron. Espoused values and underlying assumptions often don’t go hand in hand. I’m fascinated by organizations that leaders who enable such alignment.

  • Web Outsourcing Gateway

    1. Today not tomorrow
    2. productive not impotent
    3. initiative not procrastination.

  • Susan Powell

    I used a variation of This/Not That with a nonprofit to articulate their values. I did this over 7 focus groups and all felt it was an engaging and effective way to stimulate discussion on this topic. Thanks for the idea.

    I am now looking for an article that talks about the importance of working from our values. Any suggestions?

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    great list ~

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    I like the “equipping” one in particular

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    I’ll see if I can write one for you…

  • Corry Ann March

    2 Great Work Situations:

    #1- With a large group of parents and children where disorganization & chaos was present:

    -In charge, not overwhelmed

    -Alert, not cowering and confused

    -Determined, not looking for someone else to fix it

    -Confident, not doubting my authority and ability

    -Empowering, not controlling, not overpowering, not feeling responsible to fix it all myself

    #2- In an habitual confrontational conversation with a person I normally avoid like the plague, due to previous conflict:

    -Listening, not interrupting

    -Allowing, not convincing

    -Open, not stuck in my perspective

    -Caring, not fearful

    -Grounded, not a coward and push over


  • Corry Ann March

    I love this one too!

  • spravka

    This is a good article and offer some helpful information for me,thank you!

  • spravka

    Very good post! Thanks a lot.

  • spravka

    Fantastic information it is.Your information is so nice and interesting.This article has many valuable side.Thanks you very much for shearing this information.

  • MichaelBungayStanier

    Thanks, Corry!

  • martymusic

    flowing, not falling
    spontaneous, not practiced
    confident, not self-inflated
    in tune, not cacophonous

  • Srinivasan

    Very meaningful and provides a lot of insight in to values and assumptions.

  • Brenda

    I loved this article and would like to share it with my network on Linkedin. Have I missed something? I cannot see the share button for linkedin?

  • Sean Blanda

    We don’t have a LinkedIn share button just yet. But one is coming in a few days!

  • Ken Teramura

    Too few business owners give enough thought to this principle and they should. Good read!

  • Sterling Lynk

    I really enjoyed this. It inspired me to add on to a few ideas I had earlier shared with my readers. Here’s my take on what you wrote:

blog comments powered by Disqus

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,151 other followers