The Negative Path to Values At Work

Or: why you need to venture into the dark if you want your values to work.

This article is me ‘thinking on a page’ (mostly in draft). I’m preparing a tailored keynote for a client who has decided that they need to refresh and revitalise their values for their organisation.

It’s a good idea: values are so often benign and inert concepts that float in the peripheries of enterprise vernacular, only ever evoked in mawkish glossy pamphlets and hokey internal comms. We are oft numbed to such. Ergo, an intentional stirring of the pot is almost always a good idea, lest we all settle into complacency.

But why is this a good idea? Why do ‘values’ persist so pertinently?

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

The Role of Values in Complex Organisations

(And hint: all organisations that involve people are complex)

Values are beliefs about what is ‘important’.

Because organisations are complex, values themselves can never be too specific or descriptive (for that to be the case, every known and unknown possible scenario would need to have a predetermined ‘correct’ response—something that would be tediously mechanical and impossible to achieve).

(My podcast conversation with Bellroy CEO Andy Fallshaw explores the role of values being a dynamic and ongoing process—continually revised, and honed so as to be polarising).

Thus, values are situational and interpretive perspectival reference points. Beacons to guide our way in the dark.

Why do we need such beacons? Because we are easily distracted from what is important, and because we are easily deluded by that which is most salient.

Now, we could talk about why values are important. But I find it’s better to take an alternative path.

The Negative Path to Values at Work

To appreciate the role of values within an organisation, just imagine: what would happen if we had no values? What if nothing was deemed collectively and distinctly important.

This might work fine, for a time. We all have a dynamic and nebulous set of ‘personal values’ anyway, and we are all generally ‘good people’ (for whatever our own situational-subjective version of ‘good’ might be). And so we’d show up and we’d ‘do the work’. There’d be emails to send, meetings to attend, targets to hit and boxes to tick. Occasionally, some challenging decisions would need to be made—things that might require you to cut corners, subtly deceive customers, hoard power, reinforce bias, or generally undermine the efficacy of the wider team. But that’s okay, right? Such infractions are rare and minor—and everyone is doing them anyway, yeah? It’s how you get ahead in this game.

Now, zoom out and view the organisation through the lens of abstraction—above and beyond your own ‘individual’ perspective. Consider it in the span of months (rather than moments). Imagine what might emerge from from the complex pattern of individuals serving just their own needs (at the expense of others). Minor infractions might become normalised, providing platform for new increments of self-serving behaviours. There’d be nothing to check or regulate this phenomena—it would simply expand and descend into a some kind of tribalistic power play. Talented people would leave, and only the coldest and most sociopathic capitalist power players would remain. But hey, that’s okay right? As long as we are keeping the shareholders happy.

Okay now zoom further and view this organisation as part of the fabric of the wider context of global society. Consider things from a more interconnected and ecological perspective. No, wait—you can’t. You’re busy and distracted by those targets you’re feeling pressured to hit. No time to think like that! Silly. Besides, how does that serve you anyway? You’ve got a mortgage and bills to pay. Prisoner’s dilemma. Tragedy of the commons. Whatevs. Best keep your head down and play the power games—for (in the absence of strong shared values) this really is the only thing that’s ‘important’.

I think I got carried away there. It is easy to, for these same things are what we are seeing expressed in society at large. Such is our End Times. Still—as we hurtle ever closer to extinction, let us return to our beacons of hope.

Valuing values at work

Organisational values only work if they are something that can be effectively evoked. If values can’t be called into the tension of a difficult decision—if evoking the values is ‘career limiting’ and/or has you met with subtle derision—then your organisation probably hasn’t done the work of making values work.

And this isn’t easy work—heck no. It’s the deep, cultural ‘heft work’ that cuts to the heart of what’s ‘truly’ ‘important’. It has us call into question how power is regulated (and distributed) as a force for ‘good’. And it takes quite a courageous leader to call such things into question, and to genuinely make ‘values’ an active function of an enterprise.

Again, the two main challenges we are up against are distraction and delusion.

Our motivation, focus, attention and behaviour will naturally gravitate to the things that provide the richest and most immediate sense of ‘progress’ (this is in part why social media, video games, email, and incentivised targets are so addictive). Values do not generally provide a rich or immediate sense of progress (they aren’t easily quantifiable or measurable)—and so thus we find ourselves distracted by the things that do. And the things that do provide the richest and most immediate sense of progress are often the things that demonstrate ‘visible effort’. And because we often value effort more than we value value (and values), it can be much more of a career advancement strategy to broadcast that you’re ‘doing the work’ than it is to actually do the work. This, in turn, fuels the rich collective pantomime of busyness that pervades most organisations and work, and contributes immensely to a rich delusion of progress.

Values are inherently nebulous, abstract and open to interpretation. It takes work to make them (situationally) clear and reinforced, so that we might make wiser decisions and more meaningful progress.

This forms part of the hidden work of great leaders.

Leaders must make values salient

They make the important stuff—the ‘meaningful’ stuff; the things we value—visible. Alive and readily apparent elements of the decisions that unfurl every day.

Leading with curiosity and empathy, they call out behaviours that support or conflict with stated values—and they encourage others to do the same. This feeds into the immensely powerful social/cultural domains of work. And this also relates to status, signalling and the collective unfurling narrative that is made of the work we do. Good leaders agitate over this stuff, maintaining generative tension—so that we don’t settle into complacency, or drift into dark domains.

When values work—when they are things that can be evoked—we are better able to:

  • Readily dispel (or call into question) ‘group think’
  • Comfortably challenge short-term or individualistic thinking fuelled only by incentive or convenience
  • Expand our consideration to the emerging needs of customers
  • Anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences
  • Maintain high and robust morale (even in the tough times)
  • Attract and retain mighty talented folk
  • Generate genuine ambassadors for the brand
  • Cultivate curiosity (and a richer synthesis drawn from a diversity of minds)
  • Mitigate the more toxic elements of ‘ego’ (obsessive individualism) in service to the greater collective
  • And more

(It feels silly to justify values at work, btw)

Of course, evoking values is almost always irritating at the time. So bloody inconvenient. And it takes the intentional crafting and maintaining of psychological safety—which can harbour its own forms of oppression (if done in a superficial manner). It’s all so hard eh? Easier to just make some posters with some pretty words on them—to literally plaster our ‘values’ about the place, and pay lip service to them in official comms. Hoho, bah.

As ever, my thinking and writing blossoms into complexity and abstraction. It’s a curse. The tendrils of the many worthy contingent tangents call to me, plucking at my attention and focus, beckoning me to write a complex and potentially incoherent long-form piece.

Which is not my intent.

I’m preparing a new keynote, and only have so much time in which to provide the most apt distillation of thought, so as to serve as a useful kind of provocation. It needs to be kinda upbeat, too. And not too cerebral, I suppose. Seasoned with the stories that bring ideas to life.

I think I may just encourage folks to consider the values they already have—the particular values that have been identified as important (ergo: the ‘more important’ important things)—and then contemplate what work and life might be like in their absence.

Imagine this

Take the value of ‘imagination’, say. It’s cute. I love it. Some of my clients have it as a stated value—one of their top five. But ‘imagination’, on its own, runs the risk of being far too abstract and benign a concept as to have any value as a value.

But imagine if imagination were not a value. Imagine if it were something simply deemed as ‘not important’. What might happen?

Well, it may be that everyone becomes enslaved in mere incrementalism. There is no innovation, and the pace of improvement is glacial. Because imagination is so closely linked to empathy, and because imagination thrives in the wandering mind—it may be that work optimises in the other direction. There’s simply no time whatsoever for idleness, creativity and other vices. There’s work to be done. Don’t question it, though. Don’t imagine alternative ways—just get on with it.

(I daresay you can extrapolate where this might lead us. And I might add: it makes more sense to highlight ‘imagination’ as a value in design/learning/research institutions then it does in other industries. Not to say that imagination is not important—rather, that it is more important in some domains than others. Hence why we go through a process of identifying core values in the first place.)

Let’s do one more: ‘diversity’. Imagine if this were deemed to be unimportant. Well then, life would get so much easier for those in positions of power, wouldn’t it? You could simply hire like-minded people, and surround yourself with people who mostly agree with your views. What a glorious echo-chamber you could build for yourselves. Everything will seem easy, because we all agree! It’s like we are one person, you know? And if someone disagrees, or has a different viewpoint, then, well: they don’t fit our culture do they? They need to be performance-managed out, post-haste! No room for dissidents and nay-sayers! You’re either with us, or against us! Eh? You either get it or you don’t. What do you mean multiple perspectives? Our way is the right way. And we have the experience and track record to prove it. Look just don’t rock the boat okay. We have a good thing going on here. Everything is and will continue to be awesome, until the point at which we wake up to realise we are no longer relevant. And only then will we ask: how did we miss this? Why didn’t anyone say anything?

(It’s surely obvious that this is not a sustainable stance.)

So I did the keynote. It went well, and manifested hardly anything like the above. Such is the way (I call it: ‘being prepared to wing it’). People appreciated the chance to contemplate values from the negative and non-saccharine stance—it made the values of this particular enterprise much more salient and real. And valued.

But what emerged during the following panel session was the challenge of evoking the values to people who occupy roles ‘higher up’ in the organisation. Hierarchy is always a thing, but in some organisations it is a more rigid and pronounced ‘thing’ than other organisations. Something that people take quite seriously, thank you very much.

And so thus, leading with values when your leaders might not themselves be leading with values… is a mighty tricky endeavour. How to best navigate this?

There are ways. They involve curiosity, empathy and tact. I may write about them someday. In the meantime, this article is quite decent.

Now if I were to be editing the above I’d delete half of the content; trimming away loose ends and refining it so that the core point—that values are more salient when we consider the implications of their absence (the negative path)—is more readily discernible.

But hey: I have a book to write and this article is a distraction, offering me a rich delusion of progress. Which I seem to value. Go figure. \ (•◡•) /

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