The Value of Values

By Chris Chittenden

What is the value of values? Most substantial organisations have defined a set of organisational values, yet all the evidence suggests those values do not seem to play a major part in the day to day activities of people who work there. Indeed, when you ask most people what their organisation’s values are, they do not know. They may know some of them but almost certainly they will not come readily to mind. Given that in most cases, a good deal of time and most likely money has been invested in arriving at a set of values what purpose do they really serve?

In order to explore this question it pays to look at values from a number of different perspectives. Firstly, we can consider values as “aspirational values”. These are the values we would like to have. They can be seen as a means of speaking to the identity we would like to create. In other words, how we would like to be seen. From an organisational perspective, aspirational values help to establish a brand based on what the organisation believes is required to be a successful player in their market. This is not to say that some of those values do not also show up in practice, just that they may not always be present with any significance. Aspirational values may also be established to provide a context in which those who formed the values would like decisions to be made by themselves and others within the organisation.

A second way of looking at values is as a means of identifying what is important to us now. These are the “values in practice” and speak to what is important for people in their daily living. Values in practice show up in the decisions people make everyday. As our decisions are situational, “values in practice” will also be situational. For example, I may hold a value I will be competitive in an individual sporting event but not competitive in community building. Given that our values are based on the conditions we find ourselves in, this does not mean that other values no longer exist, just that they rise or recede given our situation. We also find that our values in practice change as we go through life. Whereas once someone might value rational thinking above compassion, this may change later in life if relationships become more important to that person.

What does all this mean from a leadership or organisational perspective? Well, values form the basis of decision-making and, as such, being clear about them has the greatest impact when they assist in making decisions. Since it seems likely that more effective decision-making will lead to better outcomes, a set of values that support daily decision-making in various situations can provide a valuable context in which to make those decisions. We can also see from this that some values will have more weight than others in certain situations and developing a shared recognition of this can also support decision-making.

If you are serious about establishing values for your team, group or organisation, an obvious starting place is to look at the decisions that have been taken in the past. How they were made will show up what was important to making them and will give you a feel for your values in practice.

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© 2006 Chris Chittenden