Values in Use

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Heather Kashner

Last week I bought lunch for my husband and I at our favorite Thai restaurant. I ordered some deeply discounted polar fleece for my kids. I donated to a food pantry in Boston in response to a former colleagues' fundraiser in honor of his late mother. I was inattentively expressing my values all over the place. If you're reading this, you are too.

Every time we use something that is finite and over which we have discretion, like money, time, or communication with another person, we are expressing our values. Or are we?

Most of us have espoused values, those we vocalize to others as the principles that guide our actions and thinking. Many companies and non-profits have them too. Unlike companies, most of us don't post signs or print business cards with our values on them. But, like a company that “values its people” but passively pressures a sick and contagious employee to come to work, we don't always align our actions with our values.

Sure, that company that pressures the sick employee may have a critical project the employee needs to finish on deadline. One critical project rolls into another and before long it becomes common to devalue people by forcing them to work sick and expose others to illness, despite what it says on the values plaque on the wall. What does that say to employees in this company? What outcomes should that company expect?

Another often-discussed example of values out of alignment is one I battle myself. I value connected relationships with people, but struggle for enough meaningful time. Too often I find myself favoring the sometimes more effortless but less deep connection offered through social media. It's not that social media has no value in service of my desire for connected relationships with my people. But, who are “my” people? What do they think when they see my online knowing I haven't called in forever to catch up? What level of connection is required to maintain the different layers of relationships I have in ways that work for me and the other person?

The reasons for misalignment between the values we claim and those we use can be numerous. Here are just a few:

  • The values we talk about may not really be our values, or at least not core to our being. Sometimes this happens because we've never considered our values in a real way, sometimes we take on values via social pressure, and sometimes through we detach from core values in trauma or fear and never find our way back.
  • We get caught in a reward trap. Whether it's likes on facebook or a big promotion, external reward and recognition can be gratifying for all of us. Some of us are even wired for the chase. We get so focused on the external reward. We forget there may be tradeoffs. Before long, we're out of alignment.
  • The mission is right, the method is wrong. Sometimes in pursuit of a big mission or goal, we attach to the familiar refrain, “the ends justify the means”. Unfortunately, repetitive use of means that are against our values will soon require some “self-protection” in the form of rationalized justification, which we may then believe. These rationalizations subjugate our original value in the mission and before long we are confused.

Over time, persistent misalignment can undermine our relationships, our achievement, our fulfillment, our happiness. If you are a leader, persistent misalignment between espoused values and values in use will damage your ability to lead your team and reach your goals. In an organization, persistent misalignment causes fractured culture, lack of commitment, and poor performance.

This misalignment or imbalance between our espoused values, those we present to others, and our values in use happens to all of us. One antidote is setting aside time for reflection. Some of us can easily reflect, casting aside instinctive defensiveness and recognizing the power of our mind to direct us toward activities that satisfy us on an instinctive and biological level, even when they are against our values. Most of us need tools and/or support.

Here are some books and articles that I've enjoyed that offer helpful insight and tools:

Mindsight, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel

I Thought it was Just Me, Brené Brown

"Interpersonal Barriers to Decision Making", Harvard Business Review, Chris Argyris

(really most writing by Argyris is useful on this topic)