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What does it take to change a person’s values?

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Shalom Schwartz, one of the leading researchers in the world on Values

The gentleman shown above is Shalom Schwartz, one of the leading researchers in the world on Values.  Values are enduring goals, and different people have different goals – this is why people differ in their values.

If you read my blogs or attend my presentations you will have heard me say that a number of personal characteristics such as personality and intelligence have strong genetic components and therefore do not change much over the course of life.

Values can and do change over a person’s life.  They appear to be learned from “significant others”, people we trust and respect.  Below is a diagram of the 10 personal values Schwartz discovered in sampling values of literally millions of people across the world in respect of their values.

Key personal values across all cultures.


At SACS we have measured many thousands of people on their values to help clients to identify whether they are a values match for their organisations.

I am often asked by clients how concerned they should be about a particular values mismatch – let’s say low benevolence in a direct care role – and whether the person could be taught to be more benevolent.  What do you do in such circumstances other than ask the expert? I rang Shalom in Israel to get his opinion.

He told me of some interesting findings about the flexibility of values.  It has been shown, for instance, that the value of security, shown on the top left hand corner of the round graph, correlates .3 with age.

To put that into plain language, the older you get, the more security conscious you become.  You are more concerned with your own wellbeing and those close to you.  Maybe it is simply that we accumulate more precious things as we age – people who are dear to us, responsibilities, things which we do not want to replace.

He also told me that he is working with doctoral students who are regularly measuring the value sets of people who have relocated overseas.  This is a work in progress, but so far it has been found that the values of the people gradually morph to become more like the values of the society they are now fitting into.  A person’s individual values are heavily affected by their social context.

Values seem to have evolved as a mechanism for ensuring that we fit into the groups we are moving into.

Sadly, he said that there is not definitive answer to the question about how quickly a person’s values might shift in order to fit into a new organisation.  A few key points:

  • Personality will affect this.  A person with a flexible, open, change oriented personality is more likely to adjust her values quickly than someone who is intrinsically change resistant.
  • Age is likely to be a factor.  Like everything in the human brain, if you have been living by a particular value for 50 years it is going to be more difficult to rewrite the neural pathway of that value than if you have had the value for only 5 years.
  • It depends on the value.  SACS undertook a major study of values which showed that the values are differentially affected by personality.  Benevolence, for instance, seems to be very personality free, whereas power seeking (see the last blog) seems to be heavily determined by personality.  Therefore it seems more likely that you could teach someone to be benevolent and kind than to teach them to be (or not to be) a power seeker.

In any case, values appear to be shifted by major or enduring events.  Do you have an environment which is likely to bring about such significant change?  If not, then it may be wisest to hire candidates with a value set which is close to your own.  Learn more on how to hire for values.

Andrew Marty

Managing Director at SACS Consulting

Andrew is a qualified psychologist who has over 25 years of human resource management consulting experience, including extensive senior executive search and selection experience.

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