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Posted on Mar 1, 2013

Defining Your Fundamental Values

Consider the following statements:

  • “We should behave according to our values.”
  • “Good decisions are founded upon consistent values.”
  • “Successful organizations ensure everyone is aligned around core values.”

Many books, articles, and even blogs make reference to the importance of values. Clearly, there is universal agreement that values are important.

But…. few explain HOW to identify and define values.

I’ll even take this one-step further. In my research on values, there are two types of values: Fundamental Values and Differentiating Values. This makes it even harder to “know” your values and when and where to apply them.

So, let’s shine some light on this subject.

Fundamental Values vs. Differentiating Values

In my eBook Developing Your Differentiating Values, I define two different types of values:

  • Fundamental Valuesdefine acceptable behavior. These are your guiding principles, or moral code of conduct for an organization, and should rarely be changed.
  • Differentiating Valuesdefine unique qualities. These distinguish what makes you unique, or separate an organization and/or brand within a competitive space, and can change over time.

To-date, my primary focus has been on helping individuals, couples, and organizations develop differentiating values that clarify what makes them unique, and provides direction for a meaningful life and/or create competitive advantage.

However, defining your differentiating values doesn’t replace the need to also define your fundamental values. Within our society, these are more commonly shared amongst individuals, within a family, and even across organizations. Yet, they are still not clear.

In other words, defining fundamental values is not so easy. But here are some observations from three respected sources.

Benjamin Franklin’s 13 Virtues

At the age of 20 (in 1726), Benjamin Franklin created a system to develop his character. He identified 13 virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. That’s a lot.

In addition, these virtues can be divided into personal behavior (first 8), and social character traits (last 5).

Interestingly, Franklin did not try and work on all 13 virtues at once. Instead, he would work on just one per week and record his observations. Of his own admittance, Franklin many times fell short. But he believed the “attempt” made him a better man and contributed to his success and personal happiness.

Milton Rokeach on Values

As a leading value theorist, Milton Rokeach proposed: “the ultimate function of human values is to provide us with a set of standards to guide us in all our efforts to satisfy needs.” In other words, values are the socially approved ways of expressing and justifying our fundamental needs. For example, a person’s need for dependence or belonging might be expressed by valuing loyalty to family, friends, or country; or showing respect for elders.

However, Rokeach made an important distinction between two kinds of values:

  • Terminal Values – desirable or idealized end-states of existence.
  • Instrumental Values – desirable modes of behavior to reach those end-states of existence.

Rokeach argued there is a limit to the number of terminal values, as these are based on human biological and social needs. However, he suggested there could be many instrumental values used to attain the terminal values.

In his research, Rokeach defined 18 terminal values: Freedom, Happiness, Mature Love, Self-Respect, True Friendship, Inner Harmony, Family Security, Wisdom, A Sense of Accomplishment, Equality, An Exciting Life, A World at Peace, A Comfortable Life, Pleasure, A World of Beauty, Social Recognition, National Security, and Salvation.

Such values as Honesty, Responsibility, Ambition, Independence, and Affection are listed as instrumental values. Interestingly, when one thinks of “values” these are the ones most often referenced since they directly relate to behavior and decision-making.

Rokeach’s research does highlight the importance of rank-order. As he compared values across countries, he confirmed the importance and impact of local culture on values. For example, the value of Wisdom was #1 in one country, yet #8 in another. This helps explain the dilemma global companies have as they hire people from different cultures with different rank-order of values.

Ken Blanchard on Values

In the book Lead Like Jesus, authors Ken Blanchard and Phil Hodges suggest values are the nonnegotiable principles that define character in a leader. They wisely observe that many companies with stated values have too many, or do not rank-order them. To really impact behavior, the authors suggest an organization should not highlight more than 3 or 4 values. Why? Because that’s all people can focus on and remember.

In the workbook that accompanies the Lead Like Jesus program, Blanchard and Hodges offer a listing of 65 values. While all of them are relevant, they suggest we need to decide which ones are most important to us. In addition, they suggest all of us need to prioritize our values. Since life is about value conflicts, we need to know which values we should focus on at a particular moment in time.

Sadly, fewer than 10% of organizations around the world have clear, written values. I suspect even fewer married couples and individuals have clearly defined their values. But the reason is obvious: there are very few resources that show us HOW to select and prioritize our values.

Addressing this issue is part of my mission.


Do you know your fundamental values? Please share!

Which of these approaches to values resonate with you?  Why?




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