Even when we get a better handle on what is most important, we often make choices in the moment that don’t match.
In the movie “The Full Monty”, Dave (played by Mark Addy) is sitting in his garden shed having wrapped himself in cling-film as a desperate weight-loss measure. Completely unaware of the contradiction, he proceeds to unwrap and eat a candy bar.
In practice, our values automatically determine our behaviour and there is little point choosing goals that don’t fit with them. In this example, hunger is a values trump card that beats the loftiest aspiration – and the conscious mind doesn’t even notice the conflict. The effect is that our subconscious seems to be playing games with us.
Values and Value systems are a huge subject in their own right and are covered in more depth elsewhere in this web book. For now, here are other common examples of the pervasive impact of values and how they trump what people say:
- organisations that say customers are important to them, but routinely reward profits over customer needs;
- people who say their family is important, but engage in activities in a way that damages their relationships with family members;
- organisations that appear to encourage whistle-blowing, but actually punish whistle-blowers
- colleagues who appear to be friendly until the first chance of a promotion, or an opportunity to shine in front of the boss;
- people who are passionate about the meeting the needs of others, yet consistently avoid hard decisions that would benefit everyone;
- executives who express concern about the welfare of their people, yet still expect them to work long hours and respond rapidly to messages 24 hours a day.
These examples illustrate how values in action, rather than declared aspirations, really drive behaviour. A mismatch between what is said, and the real (hidden) values that drive behaviour is a common feature of most organisations.
It’s noticeable that in most cases the predominant value is hidden. Often the dominant value is negative – for example a fear of being fired, or maybe of looking stupid. (As an aside, these negative values are often at play when people put up with oppressive behaviour from others).
When we notice these inconsistencies they make us feel uncomfortable, and a natural response is to try and suppress or deny the underlying value. But a judgement about whether a particular value is good or bad is rarely useful, particularly if it leads to avoidance: the important thing is to work with reality.
Years ago, when I was first learning about this stuff, I asked my class leader about the apparent contradiction between my desire to be an outstanding chief executive, and my personal interest in technology – my geekiness. His answer confused me at the time: I needed to integrate the two. Years later, I understand exactly what he meant and now allow myself to take delight in enjoying being a manager and a geek at the same time
We can’t afford to ignore the behaviour that flows from our values: it is tangible evidence of what is important to us at a deep level. The unspoken need has to be satisfied somehow, or it will emerge to sabotage our best intentions in future.
When we set our goals, we need to do so in a way that acknowledges, rather than contradicts, our values. If one of our major values is money, then being on call 24 hours a day may be acceptable. But if resolving conflicting values gets difficult there are other tools that we can use, for example:
- values and value systems: understanding how values affect our behaviour, and how to recognise what our values (and the values of others) really are;
- perceptual positions: understanding the issues from different perspectives in order to gain new insights;
- integration of parts: finding ways to integrate apparently conflicting needs at a deep level.