Holding Our Values

This week i’ve been exploring ‘values’, from both an individual and Organisational perspective. I’ve tried to break down the relationship between the narrative of ‘values’ and the practical actions that we take, and to consider whether it’s even possible to use the idea of ‘values’ in any meaningful sense. Today i will revisit this last point: what can we actually ‘do’ about values?

As i’ve written this week, i’ve found myself thinking ‘what if values are not real’. I’m unsurprised by this thought, because it’s probably driven by broader questions, such as ‘what is identity’ and ‘is there a self’? Maybe ‘values’ do sit somewhere in the centre of our ‘soul’, and maybe they do direct or inform our action. Or maybe they don’t. Neither neurologists, nor social scientists, nor religious leaders, can truly tell us whether there is a ‘self’ that sits in our heads or our hearts. Some would argue that all the conscious ‘self’ is is a story, a narrative told over time.

In that sense, values may be no more ‘real’ than the story they are held in within the moment.

But i’m not sure that’s a bad thing: is the ‘self’ any less real if it’s just a story? And are values any less real if we just conjure them up the narrative of the moment?

Where this leaves me is to think that perhaps we should be less concerned about the specific words of ‘values’, and more concerned to consider how we hold them. Both in thought and action.

Even a cursory consideration of what ‘values’ are would indicate that ‘values’ do not make us good, or better. As i shared before, almost everyone believes that they have ‘values’ and that their values are good – and yet nobody has trouble identifying people who have ‘poor’ values, or who ‘do not share’ my values. Hence the simple possession of the idea, or actuality, of values may be of little practical use.

So how do we hold our values? Are they in a basket, which we occasionally peer into? Or are they a filter, what we project our actions through? Or are they a foundation of stone, upon which we stand?

Or maybe they are a picture of our perfect self which we use as a mirror to hold our actions of the day up against?

Or perhaps they sit in the attic of our mind, slightly dusty. Or perhaps as an old issue of a favourite magazine: slightly out of date?

Perhaps we should ask if ‘values’ are something we need to be conscious of, to curate, and to clean out, or if they are universal and eternal?

If values are so broad that they have no useful edges that we can push off from, then can they be of much use at all?

Individuals tend not to publish their values: Organisations, by contrast, are obsessed with it. I started with my bank, and it took me one google search to find them:

Respect – Integrity – Service – Excellence – Stewardship

Well: those are all good words. But what do they mean, and who are they for? I’ve been with my bank for thirty years, so i consider myself an expert. And yet i cannot discern any meaningful way that those values have been ‘lived’ in my personal experience.

I remember the time i called them up and was put on hold, but they forgot to hit the hold button, and had a long conversation about the weekend before coming back to me to explain why their manager had said ‘no’.

I remember when they charged me a whole sequence of overdraft fees as a student, which they only stopped doing when the regulator told them not to.

I remember when, more recently, they got caught up in a global scandal, and fined. And i remember when their Chief Exec got both hired and fired, despite being a reasonably unpleasant man.

Overall, i am rather ambivalent about my bank. I would describe our relationship more as one of convenience than inspiration, and inertia on my part. They seem to love their values, but i cannot discern them at all.

So i looked elsewhere: what about the political party that governs the UK. I would hope that they have values, but it appears not. On first glance there appear to be a lot of statements of intent, but no page labelled ‘values’, and no search function either, so they appear to lack both values and good UX design.

I tried the Opposition party too, for good measure, who did at least have a page that told me i could find out about their values – but then i couldn’t actually find what their values were. But they definitely told me that they wanted the country to be better. Which is odd, because so did the other party.

None of this particularly inspires me to think that ‘values’ have much impact, beyond the aspirational, the feel good, or the self comforting. And yet here we are, all believing how important they are.

I wonder if there is a different way to look at values: not as the driver of intent and action, but rather as the measurement of it? Perhaps that we should understand our personal relationship with ‘values’ as the opportunity to learn how, and why, we deviate our actions from them. And perhaps for Organisations to share more stories about the specific actions that they take to reach those lofty values, and to share with humility the ways that they fail?

Or perhaps those conversations are too painful? Perhaps values are destined to remain a totem within our Organisational life: vaunted, discussed, shared, opposed or enamoured, but not necessarily truly examined or lived, at least in honest detail.

I wonder why we are so afraid to abandon the idea? Just because we cannot truly locate or find our values as a thing not does mean we are not kind, virtuous, honest or hold integrity. Just because they do not act as a weight upon our action, except in our own heads, does not mean that they are not really real.

It’s easier to view the world in black and white, in good and evil, in us and them. But perhaps the world is more truly grey, perhaps both good and evil, and perhaps just ‘us’ standing opposite ‘us’.

Convenient narrative are, of course, convenient, but that does not make them true.

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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