Values at Work

I’ve been reading about Value Theory. There’s an excellent article in People Management Magazine* , by Julian Bazley, which has provided much enlightenment, but also prompted me to ask more questions about values as a business concept.

If I had been asked what my core work values are, I would say immediately honesty, integrity and respect. But as an individual I hold creativity, sociability and family closest to my heart. Some of these transcend into a work of course, and indeed I would say that honesty, integrity and respect are personal values too. So there is no strict differentiation, but perhaps a  bazinga difference in priority. I had a little trouble defining the difference between values as beliefs, behaviours and attitudes. But a simple explanation was forthcoming from some values research in the book Line Therapy and the Basis of Personality (Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall).

If you look at behaviour as the ‘output’, all actions are processed by the brain which operates on emotional response filtered by values, beliefs and attitudes. And, with recourse to the accepted wisdom that we delete, distort and generalise information we process, then our behaviour is influenced by many layers before the output – our behaviour – manifests.
In a leadership training session a few years back the trainer mentioned personal values and how easily they can be challenged. She said “If I say that respecting all life as sacred is a value of mine, and I believe it passionately, you accept that, and I believe it. But if you threatened my children, for example, and my only way to protect them was to kill, I would kill. So – is respecting life really one of my core values?”

She challenged whether our values would remain intact under extreme pressure. Now, on the whole we won’t experience life-threatening behaviours in our daily work environment (though there are many who do in professions such as the military or police force), but we may well experience pressures that challenge our work, and personal, values.
If your employer decides that it wishes to sell widgets to the oppressive regime in some far away land that has fundamentally different political, religious or social ethics to your own, by challenging your values as an individual, does it not also ask you to challenge your employer’s values? This is where values start to wander into the territory of ethics.

The difference between ethics and values is another conceptual challenge for me. Wikipedia talks of Values Theory in the following terms:

“Value theory encompasses a range of approaches to understanding how, why, and to what degree humans should or do value things, whether the thing is a person, idea, object, or anything else. This investigation began in ancient philosophy, where it is called axiology or ethics. Early philosophical investigations sought to understand good and evil, and the concept of “the good”. Today much of value theory is scientifically empirical, recording what people do value and attempting to understand why they value it in the context of psychology, sociology, and economics.”

So the line between ethics and values is a blurred one: I may adhere to an employer’s stated values, but I could disagree with their ethics. For example, a corporate value may be client related which is hard to argue with, yet the Board of Directors may have no qualms whatsoever with investing profit in an arms company, which may clash with my personal values.
The article by Julian Bazely focuses on the communication of corporate values, of cascading those values through the organisation into belief and behaviour (broadly speaking) and the benefit this can bring the employer and the employees.

One thing that is clear from the article and from the light research and reading I have done, the important issue with corporate values is to communicate them and to understand how values can work as motivators – and demotivators.

Recently I facilitated the ‘Life Lines’ game with a team including a trainer and two coaches. The group do not work as a team except in general terms within the company. The game gives you a huge range of values to choose from so it was not surprising that only one value was shared by any of the delegates (passion, as it happens). What was interesting is that, knowing the delegates, I could easily map their values to the individual’s character. There were some surprises, but on the whole the team demonstrated ‘authenticity’ – they behave as they believe. However, this doesn’t mean that everything is perfect in the garden. One of the teaser questions in the game asked whether you might peek into a private diary or not? This provided interesting additional insights to the personalities around the table. The outcome of the game was, in my experience, a reinforcement of their integrity. This is only in my opinion as facilitator; the outcome was also boredom for one and a happy distraction from work for another.

The value of the values game? It provided some useful insights and helped explore some interesting areas of the company’s values – ones which are communicated regularly (through team meetings) and, mostly, demonstrated in behavior. I do think, however, that this is possibly a more typical outcome from a group who work in L&D than perhaps in other sectors.

Of Julian’s summary of key points, the most important in my opinion was quite simply ‘Reinforce your values through consistent action and communication’. An employer could have the most effective set of values in theory, but unless the employees know, understand and demonstrate those values, they are not even worth the paper they written on.

* Article originally published in February 2008 iin the How To section. Please note that People Management require registration on their site to access archived materials.

The Complete Trainer Ltd also sell the Values-based team game ‘Life Lines’. This game is ideal for understanding individual and team values and for cascading corporate values.


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