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The Trouble With Values

December 04, 2009

(Consultant Thaler Pekar helps smart leaders and their organizations find, develop, and share the stories and organizational narratives that can rally critical support. Her previous posts in this series can be found here, here, here, and here.)

Core-values03 For many years, I traveled around the world teaching people the importance of values-based communication. Values-based communication urges people to initiate their communication efforts by stating the values -- values such as opportunity, fairness, and equity -- underlying their issues and advocacy.

There's a problem with this approach. It doesn't go far enough. Values are utterly subjective and mean different things to different people. Heck, any given value can mean different things to the same person at different times in their lives or within different contexts.

Think of the value of community. To rural Americans, "community" means something much different than it does to city dwellers, who often associate the idea with their social, political, or religious affiliations.

The realization that this was the case (along with what I had learned about how the brain processes information) eventually led me to stories as one of the best ways to articulate stated or underlying values.

Annette Simmons, in Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact, offers the following explanation:

Values are subjective. To one person, integrity means doing what her boss tells her to do. To someone else, integrity means saying no even if it costs her job. If you want to encourage a value or teach a value you have to provide a demonstration by telling a story that illustrates what that value means, behaviorally. Hypothetical situations sound hypocritical and preachy. Be specific.

Simmons also notes that "Values are meaningless without stories to bring them to life and engage us on a personal level." Not only do stories help us to establish meaning, they also help us talk about both values and facts at the same time.

Earlier this year, my husband, Tom, traveled to Senegal and worked on a documentary for Tostan, an organization that works to "empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights." Tostan means "breakthrough" in the West African Wolof language, and the organization was founded by an extraordinary American woman, Molly Melching. Tom returned from his travels with this story:

In 1997, Tostan was conducting educational workshops in Senegalese villages, helping women and men learn about their human rights to health and to be free from all forms of violence. The women in one village made the connection between female genital cutting, ongoing health problems, and even deaths among their young women. They realized that female genital cutting was a violation of their human rights and begged their village leader to put a stop to it. The old chief, Diawara, told Molly he couldn't do that, even if he wanted to. Molly asked him why that was, and he explained that people don't marry within their own village, so all the intra-marrying villages would have to agree before they could change a tradition like FGC. If they all agreed, they would make a public declaration of FGC abandonment so that it would stick. She asked him what it would take, and he said that if he had the bus fare, he would go and talk to the other village leaders. So Molly gave him the money, and he spent three months going from village to village. In the end, it resulted in the first-ever public declaration of FGC abandonment by the thirteen intra-marrying villages.

Today, Diawara has personally persuaded 174 villages to abandon the practice. And he has spoken before the United Nations and the British Parliament about the practice. Of the 5,000 Senegalese villages that have practiced female genital excision, 1,993 villages where Tostan has been working have abandoned it.

A powerful and clear illustration of the Tostan mission statement!

Another problem with values is that they are non-hierarchical. We like to think that our lives are neatly ordered, and that we, as emotionally intelligent adults, have formed clear moral frameworks that guide our decision-making. We will always value family over work, for instance, or community over autonomy. But even if we believe that some values exist on parallel tracks, complex situations can cause them to collide, requiring us to make decisions about which value or values should win out.

For example, how do we allocate a finite amount of charitable contributions in a world of unending need? How do we decide which of many, seemingly equally worthy charities should receive our support?

Katharine Q. Seelye, in the New York Times, recently examined just such a collision of values:

The abortion issue has put members of Congress who support abortion rights in a quandary over the health care legislation.

Do they stick to their long-standing principles and fiercely resist the legislative effort to limit access to insurance for abortions?

Or should they compromise on the issue and vote for legislation that in other ways could greatly improve health care for women?

...Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy at Harvard, said the choice between trying to stop an erosion of abortion rights and trying to improve health for women pitted "what are described as two fundamental human rights -- the right to universal coverage and the right of access to reproductive services – against each other.

"They aren’t just policy trade-offs," he said. "And that's why this is so wrenching."

What's more, different constituencies may differ in the way in which they prioritize their values, so that, in terms of advocacy, leading a campaign with the same underlying value for all stakeholders may be shortsighted.

My colleagues at the Australian consulting firm Anecdote note yet another problem that arises when organizations focus on values, as well as a solution to the problem:

Most organizations we know have a set of stated values. You know what we mean, things like integrity, professionalism, respect for the individual. And in most cases they've been developed for the wrong reasons. And when developed for the right reasons, most employees don't understand what the values mean anyway. Let us explain.

Often the starting question for establishing a set of organizational values is, "Which values should we hold each and everyone accountable for so our organization thrives?" This gets translated to "What values do our stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers) expect us to hold?" The list is then drawn up and the result is a moribund list of words.

Shawn [Callahan, a partner at Anecdote] was reading a paper by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and they suggest an alternative set of questions (in our words): "What values do we deeply hold that reflect the essence of our company?" and "Would we still hold these values if they created a disadvantage for us if things changed?" If you can answer these two questions in the positive then you've identified your core values.

Proclaiming one set of values while exhibiting another is certain to result in your listeners distrusting you. You will appear disingenuous, if not deceitful.

As a leader and communicator, you want to share the values that inform the issue on which you want your listener to take action. But don't simply state the value; be sure to demonstrate it every day through your actions and your listeners' experiences with you and your organization. Short of your listeners' ability to physically experience what you are talking about, a story that clearly articulates and demonstrates the power of your stated values is the next best thing.

-- Thaler Pekar

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