On Having the Courage to Live (not just wear) Your Values

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Flicking through a magazine the other day, my eye caught a story on my favourite topic – woman’s search for meaning. The writer’s search took her on a PR trip (she was a journalist-slash-PR) to Thailand (and later on a trip to India with bethechangejourney.org) to celebrate Pandora’s Essence Collection of “meaningful charms”. To find your true inner self click through a questionnaire on Pandora’s website and you will be guided to your values. You can then express these values through purchasing several “delicate and sophisticated charms crafted from precious metals and sparkling stones”. Apparently, Pandora makes 2million of these charms a week. And the top Five? Strength, Positivity, Passion, Love and Caring, which is lucky, as these charms retail at only £35 each. Creativity will set you back £150. Meaningfully conveying one’s inner self is an expensive business.

Values is a synonym of ethics, but they are not the same as ethics. They state what is important to us in life, and they provide us with a set of behavioral principles or guidelines – they give our life direction and purpose. Values transcend contexts, making decision making easier. In organisations, if we collectively align on our aspirations, aligning on our values can be a powerful tool to create internal cohesion, in other words, a culture.

But values aren’t visible; it is only through observing behavior that we can see what is important to an individual or to an organisation. It’s what we do, and how we do it that’s important, rather than what we say. If you or an organisation is living with integrity (described on my children’s school website as “honesty when no one’s looking”), values will be congruent with behaviour. Truly understanding our values and living by them isn’t easy, for many of us it can be a lifetime’s challenge.

A 2012 white paper from creative communications agency Radley Yeldar “The Value of Values” looked at how FTSE100 listed companies expressed their true inner self. Publically stating its values is important for organisations so that stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, partners – know what they stand for. It builds trust and gives us confidence that the company will act in a responsible way when making decisions.

Echoing the advice of Warren Buffet (“in looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. If they don’t have the first one, the other two will kill you”) RY found integrity to be the value expressed most. Teamwork, Respect, Customer and Innovation complete the top five.

Scientific research from a team at Baylor College of Medicine suggests that our brains process the actions of organisations and people very similarly – neurally we regard organisations as social beings not inanimate objects. So how do we react when the organisation we work for behaves in a way that is inconsistent with the values we have aligned with?

These situations can create, what American social psychologist Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance (or disharmony) is a state of inner tension and refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours which produces a feeling of discomfort. Festinger’s theory suggests we have an inner drive to avoid disharmony and therefore maintaining harmony with our attitudes and beliefs becomes paramount. When we work for organisations that behave in a way that is counter to their stated values, or our own values, reducing disharmony might involve changing our own attitudes and beliefs so that we remain in harmony with the organisation. We might say “we have no choice but to hit this quarter’s numbers” or “for the long term health of the business we need to do this now”. In other words we convince ourselves that there is a higher purpose, a higher value, and our own values reduce in importance.

Working for a company that behaved counter to the values it publically expressed, triggered my own life shift. Lacking a questionnaire to guide me to my true inner self I had no idea what my values were, but I knew I wanted to lead a values and purpose driven life and my behaviour was inconsistent with that aim.

We can diminish the importance of our own values or absolve ourselves of responsibility by saying “I only work here” or “that’s CSR’s job”. But companies are collectives of people united in a common purpose, not inanimate objects. Companies can’t be ethical, only people can.

In the words of Abraham Maslow “life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety (out of fear and need for defense) and risk (for the sake of progress and growth). Make the growth choice a dozen times a day”.   We make a choice to live by our values – to stay or to leave. Our values manifest in what we do, not what we say, or what we buy to wear on our wrist.
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