Work Values

Individuals hold central beliefs about two broad aspects of work. First, they have beliefs regarding how they ought to behave in work-relevant contexts (working hard, acting with integrity, respecting others). Second, they have preferences regarding what the work environment will provide for them (a challenging job, high pay). Although authors have usually focused on one or the other of these different approaches to work values, they are, in fact, related. Work values defined as generalized beliefs about modes of conduct at work form a primary component of the self-schema, the ought self, whereas work preferences compose a part of the desired self. Self-relevant beliefs tend to be the most deeply held and influential of cognitions, and thus values are stable and central beliefs, having powerful influences on other cognitions, motivation, and action in the workplace. Work values are not merely evaluative responses; they are embedded within self-identity.

Based on the preceding definitions, work values defined in the ought frame are a powerful influence on preferences regarding objects or organizational characteristics. Work values, as they address one of a very few primary domains in life, act as an organizing structure for much of the rest of our system of cognition. Perceptions, motivation, attitudes, and opinions are all subject to this structure. Many concepts thought of as factual are influenced by work value systems, for example, the belief that jobs that require more responsibility also require more pay.

Structure and Origin of Work Values

Most authors conceptualize the structure of individual work value systems as ordered in terms of their impact on evaluations of objects, events, and behavior at work; but others have disagreed with such a ranking approach. Because values are socially desirable, individuals tend to learn them in an all-or-nothing fashion as children (always be honest, always achieve the highest possible level of performance). As individuals mature, they integrate these beliefs into a value system. This leads to the necessity of choosing one value over another when they come into contact with conflict; but over time, individuals may try to represent multiple values in their behavior.

Several general categories of work values are commonly identified; these typically include extrinsic or instrumental values (high pay), intrinsic or cognitive values (a challenging job), relational or social values (respectful relationships between coworkers), and power or self-enhancement values (gaining promotion or status). They are seen as more specific manifestations of general life values, but it may be argued that work values also affect life values over time. Evidence tends to support this spillover relationship between life and work values; however, it has also been proposed that a compensatory model may represent the relationship between different domains. For example, if individuals are particularly driven to achieve extrinsic outcomes at work, they may focus on relationships in their personal lives. This conceptualization has received minimal support to date.

Differences in work values may also be traced to cultural values based on the developmental history of particular nations or regions. A small number of value dimensions seems to generalize across national cultures; thus such values are pivotal in understanding differences in such work-related cognition and behavior as communication, conflict resolution, and status organizing processes. Research on cultural values indicates that general clusters of these values revolve around basic problems that all human societies must solve:

  • The nature of the relationship of the individual to the collective
  • The use of hierarchy versus egalitarianism as a means to ensure societal order
  • The nature of the relationship to the natural and social world (mastery or control versus harmony or adaptation)

These cultural patterns influence work values in that some cultural values are compatible with certain work values, whereas others conflict. For example, hierarchical approaches to social order are consistent with power and self-enhancement work values, and egalitarianism and harmony as cultural values are consistent with a strong emphasis on relationships at work.

In addition to cultural context, work values are acquired from other societal institutions (family, economic, and political). Besides these contextual influences, individual differences, such as personality, also play a role in the development of an individual’s work value system. Work values and personality tend to be related, but they both also contribute uniquely to variance in occupational preferences. Because life values are learned early and relate to relatively stable factors such as culture and personality, they are difficult to change during adulthood. Such change requires a change in an entire system of related beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions. Direct conflict of values may produce change, and having violated a value once, individuals may find it easier over time to violate that value until it has lost its importance. Repeated failure of value-related behavior to produce positive outcomes may also produce change. These processes are likely to explain long-term, cross-situational value changes in adults. Overall, the finding of a tendency toward a desire for increased balance of work and nonwork values provides support for the idea that work ethic values in the United States have tended to erode as related behaviors, or lack thereof, have failed to significantly change lifestyles. Evidence indicates not only that generational differences in work values exist but that values also change as employees age.

Organizational socialization is one important process through which work values are conveyed to employees. Cultural attributes of the organization, such as myths, stories, repetition, and more formal socialization processes, are used to teach employees what they should value in the work context. Leaders or founders may propagate the values of the organization among employees. To be internalized, however, a value must be functional at the individual level or be presented as the sole course of action available. Work values that are stated or espoused by the organization will eventually lose their priority if reward systems do not support them. In such situations employees learn that what they should say is substantially different from what they should do (enacted values). Employees bring values to the organization, and so at times may influence those of the organization, especially if large numbers or particularly powerful employees are hired.

Work Value Effects and Outcomes

Work values influence perceptions regarding what occurs in the work environment, in particular, in highly uncertain contexts. They also act as an influence on behavioral decisions. In general, values lead to goals, which in turn lead to behavior. In addition to the mediating effect of goals, moderators (such as having discretion over action) and the labeling of an action as value relevant can determine whether values will predict behavior in specific situations. Work values act as motivational elements in that they indicate which behaviors are more desirable to perform than others from an ideal perspective, either because the behavior itself is valued, or because the behavior moves the actor toward a valued object or event. Acting on values may or may not fulfill innate needs.

Certain values play important roles in influencing particular behaviors. For example, a dominant honesty value produces more ethical decisions. These relationships between work values and behavior are often small at any one point in time but stronger over time, as with other individual differences. Additionally, in some instances, individuals use value statements (espoused, as opposed to enacted, values) to provide legitimacy for behavior that has already occurred. In these cases we might argue that the behavior is generating espoused work values, as opposed to work values leading to behavior.

Shared value systems, or work value congruence, has received a substantial amount of research attention. Several types of congruence have been identified; for example, supplementary fit, in which similarity with others in the work environment is the basis for congruence, and complementary fit, in which different attributes may be brought to the aggregate by different individuals to round out the unit or organization. With regard to work values, supplementary or similarity-based congruence has received the most attention. Shared work values have been shown to influence internal processes positively. Common patterns of cognition lead to reduced conflict and uncertainty; shared goals; and more predictability, trust, and satisfaction. This view is consistent with the Attraction-Selection-Attrition framework, which states that organizations tend to attract and retain similar people, and thus become more homogeneous over time. Value congruence has been explored at multiple levels (individual-organization, supervisor-subordinate, between coworkers, within teams).

Although sharing enacted work values tends to produce positive affective responses by way of common processing, the ability to articulate espoused values congruent with organizational management may relate more consistently to individual performance evaluations. A related view of value sharing, drawn from the organizational culture literature, is represented by the fragmentation perspective, which argues that shared beliefs are temporary because of the existence of multiple belief systems in any complex and uncertain environment.

Although evidence consistently shows that work value similarity generates more positive attitudes, the relationship between value sharing and performance remains unclear. One option is that positive affect generated by value congruence will lead to higher performance. Other areas of research (i.e., the cross-cultural and group decision-making literatures) suggest that too much homogeneity may reduce performance in creative or changing situations and that constructive conflict should be generated by a diversity of task-relevant perspectives. If so, this conflict must be managed carefully to positively influence effectiveness.


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  5. Smola, K. W., & Sutton, C. D. (2002). Generational differences: Revisiting generational work values for the new millennium. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23, 363-382.

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