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Jan Hills

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The neuroscience of organisational values – part 2


In part one of this article series, Jan Hills explored what the research says about how people respond to organisational values, how they connect values to rewards, how values change over time and the link between values and risk. In this follow-up piece, she looks at how this new research impacts organisations and what they should be doing to adapt.

There are a number of ways the ideas in part one of the article series may help you with organisational values.

1. Conflicting values

Firstly do your stated values cover all or only some of the dimensions? Whilst it is not necessary to have all covered it is useful to know from an organisational point of view where your focus is. This would suggest something about what is valued in the organisation as a whole.  Do banks mainly have values around safety verses risk? How does this impact relationships?

As a retailer are your values focused sufficiently on social connection versus ‘better than’? Are there conflicts in your values, do they cover both risk and safety for example making it hard for people to follow both? Equally look for examples like how social connection is valued but also those about individuals striving to be the best. Again this may set up a conflict.

I'm not saying you must change these values but if you find such conflicts it makes sense to discuss with employees how they manage the resulting behaviour and why both values are important to the business.

2. Values and change

In change situations companies often need to 'play two games at once.' To protect their old franchise whist changing the way they work for the future. In these circumstances it is easy for people to be confused about what is really valued and which values are more important in any given situation; the old or the new?

Having a language to talk about these conflicts based on the dimensions above can be helpful. And being transparent about the context the different values should be used in is essential.

One question is whether people actually respond most to safety. That is, people will be driven to do what they feel is safe for them. Safety may be seen differently in different contexts. It is safer to cheat my colleagues or the customer when my bonus is on the line but safer to maintain a tight bond when there are redundancies and those who are seen as most loyal are likely to be retained.

The context determines what is perceived as safe and what is therefore valued. For example what is safe may appear different based on the time scale you are considering; long term or short term, or your assumptions about the market.  This implies it is essential to help people to understand the dynamics of values in context. Not just as an overarching description of what is important to the company.

And when a company is 'playing two games' i.e. it must work in today's context whilst changing to meet future challenges, being explicit about the different values and hence behaviour required in each context is essential.

Companies may have the relative luxury of different teams clearly working on one game or the others but often it is more subtle than that and helping  people to first be clear about which 'game' the decision or behaviour is related to is an important part of the role HR and leaders need to play for success.  The other dynamic that must be managed in this context is between what is valued across teams working in different 'games.'

3. Values alignment

When organisations are attempting to change values and have employees adopt the new values it is typically assumed to be hard to do. But neuroscience is suggesting a different set of assumptions may apply.  Lieberman says that our minds are less like hermetically sealed vaults that separate each of us from one another, and more like "Trojan horses"; letting in the beliefs of other people without our realising the extent to which we're being influenced.

We are driven to ensure that we have the same kind of beliefs and values as people around us, creating the social harmony we depend on.

In the workplace this suggests ensuring there are strong bonds with the company and peers in work groups, creating social connection and safety within the group will drive value alignment in the way described in the research above. The values held by peers or an important group will drive social consistency and conformity more than any communications campaign.

4. Intentional conformity

This research also suggests organisations need to do more than 'announce' their values and expect people to align. For example a leader can overwhelm the team, or organisation with their values, if they are very vocal. Whilst at first glance this may seem helpful it can set up a scenario where energy is directed to demonstrating alignment, not questioning or focusing on whether the leader's assumptions and direction are the right way to go.

Or it means people lack the details to determine how the values play out in different contexts. This is when integrity issues occur. In extreme cases a kind of pageantry can be set up around demonstrating adherence to the leader's values even before people have really understood what they are. This sets people up to spend more energy on mimicking loosely understood values and reduces the amount of thinking power available to the team. 

Research by Possner has also found that when people are clear about the company's values and how they enact them, organisations gain benefits in increased productivity. One additional advantage of spending time really deepening understanding of values is that people, especially leaders who have done this work, seem to have a presence and steadiness in a crisis; they have already done the thinking about the right behaviour and can act with clarity, creating a greater sense of certainty for people who work with them.

Cohen and Miyake found that when people engage in values affirmations by writing about why they are important, they become very good at protecting people when they might be at risk. For example, women did better on tests after getting clear insight about their values compared to when they hadn't thought about them.  Making values explicit creates a sense of purpose and more energy to achieve goals and act in a way that is true to ourselves.

5. Implicit verse explicit values

People are very adept at understanding what is valued implicitly verses what is explicitly said. The research on the Community verses Wall Street game demonstrates this.  This can be useful as it helps employees align with what is important as values shift or contexts change.

However, when there is a widespread disconnect between implicit values and the resulting behaviour it drives i.e. what people see, confusion results. This is where HR can effectively help leaders by making the link back to business results.

For example a team may be hitting their numbers, they are valued and rewarded for their success but is their success based on valuing safety over getting better than the external competition. Perhaps they never create stretch targets and risk failing to achieve them.

Organisations would be wise to think deeply about values and what they mean in context. The research suggests values are highly contagious. The brain has a very flexible value system and this can be both useful in changing values and dangerous if left to chance.


  • Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. (2011). Reintegrating accuracy into the study of social cognition (Target Article). Psychological Inquiry, 22(3), 159-182.
  • Neural Mechanisms of Foraging Nils Kolling, Timothy E. J. Behrens, Rogier B. Mars, Matthew F. S. Rushworth Science 6 April 2012: Vol. 336 no. 6077 pp. 95-98
  • Nook & Zaki, in prep cited at the NeuroLeadership Summit 2014
  • Zaki, J., & Mitchell, J. (2011). Equitable decision making is associated with neural markers of subjective value. PNAS, 108(49), 19761-19766.
  • Social comparison affects reward-related brain activity in the human ventral striatum Falk et al. Science 318, 1305 (2007)
  • Emotion regulation reduces loss aversion and decreases amygdala responses to losses Peter Sokol-Hessner, Colin F. Camerer, and Elizabeth A. Phelps. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access February 15, 2012
  • The Name of the Game: Predictive Power of Reputations versus Situational Labels in Determining Prisoner’s Dilemma Game Moves Varda Liberman. Pers Soc Psychol Bull September 2004 vol. 30 no. 9 1175-1185
  • Cooper, R., DeJong, D. V., Forsythe, R., & Ross, T. W. (1996). Cooperation without reputation: Experimental evidence from Prisoner's dilemma games. Games and Economic Behavior, 12,187-218.
  • Matthew Lieberman (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press.
  • Posner et al, 2010 The truth about leadership: the no fads heart of the matter facts you need to know Jossey Bass
  • Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A class room study Science 330, 1234 (2010); Akira Miyake, et al. Science 330, 1234
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