Values vs Principles: What’s the Difference?

With my work in Leadership Development, I use an assessment called the Merit Profile™, which measures an individual’s Personal Leadership Effectiveness™ (PLE™)  in the areas of Character, Behavior, Attitudes, Beliefs and Commitments.
I use a values-based approach because I think that before an individual can have clarity with their purpose and vision, they must first know what they value. I’m not talking about integrity, trust, honesty, etc. In my view, those are givens, meaning that’s what we expect from everyone we interact with. What I want to know is what two or three things does a person value or (more specifically) care about right now more than anything?
In my work with leaders or aspiring leaders, I often find that most are confused about the difference between values and principles. That’s not uncommon because most of us spend more time at work than we do away from work. As a result, we spend more time being influenced by protocols and policies (rules & regs) than we do by values, unless one’s lucky enough to work where organizational and personal values are aligned.
It’s almost impossible for human beings to live in isolation. We’re all part of a society and we follow unwritten rules, customs, and traditions deemed right for everyone. These rules can be about morality as to what’s right and what’s wrong, or they can be religious in nature. These two concepts of values and principles become guiding forces in the lives of most of us. Though closely related, values and principles have differences that are very important.
Values are sets of beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, and about many other aspects of living and interacting in a society with others.
Though there are universal values like love and compassion, all values vary from culture to culture. There are also personal values that vary from person to person. Values are beliefs and opinions that people hold regarding issues and concepts such as race, liberty, freedom, love, sex, education, relationships, friendships, religion, gender; in short, every value conflict we’re seeing play out in front of us every day.
Most of the time, values tend to have a religious sanction and people hold them without knowing much about them. They consider some things as sacred and others profane just because it’s written in the sacred historical document or archive of their choice. However, in today’s environment, values relative to all those noted herein are also held without knowing much about them. In fact, I’ve often noted that most people make assumptions about what they think they know rather than what they actually know. Why? Because it’s easier to believe someone else’s narrative than it is to do the research or homework required to know what’s needed to make a value judgement, especially when attempting to identify one’s own personal core values.
Values serve as a guiding force in life and provide a sense of direction to an individual in a society. There are times when there’s a lot of confusion in the minds of people regarding an issue or a feeling. At times like these, clear cut values help an individual come out of a dilemma and move ahead in life.
For example, abortion may be prohibited and disapproved by a religion, but a modern government may allow women to decide their family size. If a woman holds positive views about abortion, there’ll be no dilemma and no battle between her own value about abortion and what her religion says about the issue. In the case of a contradiction between values (or value conflicts as we call them), there can be a lot of mental conflict that can torment an individual for the rest of their life. In short, there’s no such thing as an easy values conflict.
Principles can be described as rules or laws that are universal in nature.
These principles are about human behavior and they set or govern the interaction between people in a society. Principles are unwritten or written laws that are expected to be followed. Those seen violating these principles are looked down upon in a society. People also create their own guiding principles in life. Whenever they’re in doubt, they can default to these principles in order to remove any doubts they may have.
As noted, principles are about universal truths or standards. One must have clear cut principles about concepts such as fairness, justice, equality, truthfulness, honesty, etc., in order to take a stand on any social issue or event. Having a principle allows one to make a stand in a way that reflects what is felt about important issues and concepts.
We need them both!
Both values and principles serve important roles in the life of an individual while dealing with others and dealing with social issues and concepts.
Values are sets of beliefs about subjective traits and ideals, while principles are universal laws and truths.
Principles serve as an anchor when confronted with conflicting issues, while values allow us to move ahead with confidence expressing our beliefs.

Truth be told, when people get lost, it’s because they don’t know what they value, nor do they have any guiding principles in place. 

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