The Illusion of Values

Today is a tour through ‘values’: the ones we hold ourselves, the ones that Organisations talk about, and the ways that they impact, or fail to impact, into our everyday action.

Most people believe that they have values, and if you ask them where they are located, they point to their heads. Probably unsurprisingly, most people believe that their values are ‘good’, but almost everyone is able to give an example of people with values who are ‘bad’.

Perhaps more surprisingly, given the strength of feeling that people have about ‘values’ in general, people often struggle to describe exactly what their values are, in ways that are more specific than some general and subjective words like ‘honest’, ‘trustworthy’, and ‘good’, and ‘fair’. Which, by coincidence, are probably the words that the ‘bad’ people use too.

I would probably describe the landscape of values like this: some things are absolute, and others are relative. I weigh around 74kg. The scale of kilograms is absolute: you can also weigh yourself in kilograms and we can compare the two. Somewhere on the outskirts of Paris i believe there is the actual ‘kilogram’, the reference weight against which, through a series of calibrated intermediaries, all other kilograms are measured. Or at least there used to be: i have a feeling there is an altogether more accurate approach used these days, but it eludes me.

You could weigh yourself in pounds and ounces, or even in rabbits and buses, but it can still be an absolute measure as there are conversions between these scales. If you can get the rabbit to sit still long enough.

Values, like ‘truth’ and ‘trust’, ‘pride’ and ‘fear’ do not work like this. They are subjective and relative measures. There is no central validation: instead, the validation happens within our own heads.

That’s not to say that we cannot share these things: we do quantify them, but through a slip of ‘qualitative’ measurement into ‘quantitative’ scales. So i can ask you how honest you tend to be, on a scale of one to ten, and you may say ‘nine’. Maybe i will say ‘8’, and you are more honest than me. Except that there is no calibration between our two perceptions of scale. Both are subjective.

Values probably operate more in this space: as beliefs, perceptions, ideas, which are shared, through language and hope more so than measurement and verifiable fact.

In this sense, values may not be a ‘thing’, in the sense that the rabbit is most certainly a thing. Rather they are a story that we believe in, but nonetheless, they act upon us.

In what i have said already lies the catch: values tend to be held in words, and behaviour, both of which are remarkably elastic. I may say that i am having a ‘good’ day, but that may mean a whole wide range of things. At the bare minimum, it may be defined by absence, in that nothing bad has happened so far. At best, i may have won the lottery.

Words are subjective, even if we believe they are absolute. ‘Truth’ is a good example of this. In general, two people arguing about ‘truth’ both believe that they are right. And, weirdly enough, they may be. Precisely because ‘truth’ is subjective.

Let me give you an example: i am a manager of two people, and i make one of them redundant. I choose person [a], and say that i have made a good decision. That is true. For me. For person [b] this may also be true. For person [a] it may not be true. Certainly i have made a decision, but it’s bad, from their perspective. I am right, and so are they.

Imagine that person [b] paid me $10 to chose to keep them, and make person [a] redundant. Now: in my heart, i know that i have made the decision for the wrong reasons, because my action is at odds with my values (assuming my values are honesty, integrity, etc).

So now i know that i have made a bad decision. Person [a] who is now out of work also knows that i have made a bad decision. But person [b] knows that it’s a good one. Unless their values are also ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’. But perhaps they have a child who needs extra tuition, or medicine, and they need the job to support that. So they know they lack integrity in one dimension (bribing me), but have it in another (responsibility towards and care for a child). So now they have made a good decision, with a bad outcome, but still believe that they made the right choice.

Imagine they tell me about the child: now i may also rationalise my action as ‘good’. In fact, person [a] may discover this and revise their decision too. Or they may feel that my acceptance of the bride negated my ‘good’ action.

As you can gather, if you are still following along, values are tricky creatures. More elusive than the overweight rabbit.

Where do we find our values, and are they eternal?

In general, people will talk about ‘inheriting’ values from parents or guardians, as well as picking them up from others as they grow up. They also typically describe a key role of a parent as being to ‘instil’ values in children, something i feel acutely myself as i keep reminding my three year old to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

But equally many people describe the influence of others, beyond their family, on their values over time. People they respect and admire, role models and mentors.

On interesting feature in the conversations i’ve been holding around values is that the majority of people believe that they are fluid, but articulate how their values have expanded or improved over time. Nobody has said that they think their values have got worse, and nor do people tend to believe that they are a bad influence on others.

This probably speaks to the inherent optimism of the social self and systems: that we tend to believe that we are good and virtuous actors in an imperfect world – but that we do not tend to accept or own up to our role in that imperfection.

I think inevitably there is a degree of aspiration around values: in part the values we speak tend to describe the self we hope we can be, and often describe the ‘other’ that we would like to encounter. Again, few people would hope to befriend the untrustworthy, unfair, or unjust.

So what use are values? In one rather bleak assessment we could say that they are aspirational and self congratulatory beliefs that are held within our own heads, or collectively within socially bonded structures.

But there may be a more positive spin: if beliefs are aspirational, or represent intent, then they also may act as social signalling, which could enable others to calibrate their thoughts, actions, and response against ours. In this sense, clearly demonstrable values, values which shine through our behaviour, may influence others in a positive way.

We could take one final view on this: the systems view. Most of us can observe, or describe, systems that we have been part of that we believe are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Many people can describe the culture of an organisation they were part of that was excellent, or toxic. People can describe good and bad leaders, and good and bad teams.

So is it likely that bad people make bad leaders and form bad teams or, as seems more likely, are there just ‘people’, who, collectively, and as individuals within a collective, exhibit contextually different behaviours that appear to be good or bad?

In other words, are good and bad people fundamentally different, or just different in their thoughts and behaviours in the moment?

My current best view on this is that people tend to conform, and it is conformity that leads to variability and potentially toxicity (as well as excellence, of course), because it removes the ability to hear dissent, and becomes harder to course correct. So good people make small compromises, to belong to environments that are not perfect, but not terrible – and then over time the gap widens, but they never unhitch themselves from the space. So good people drift into systems that drift into toxicity, all the while believing that they maintain their values.

Systems describe ‘values’ as part of their overall narrative of culture, but tend to do so in rather deterministic ways: to say ‘these are our values’, when in fact they are simply words, or aspiration, and often without the ability to explore or position ‘self’ in ‘system’. In other words, we tell people the answer and then ask them to repeat the answer, but we never ask them the question.

And if we do discover dissent, we treat it as heresy: this is, perhaps, a hangover of the paternalistic organisation, which holds conformity and obedience above diversity and capability.

We talk a good talk, but collapse back to naive behaviours under pressure.

I share this as a fragmentary thought on values: a much used term, but perhaps little understood, beyond the initial and convenient interpretation.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Leadership, Quiet Leadership, Social Leadership and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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