What are Values?

By | May 21, 2013

Values as a component of our Guidance System

“What are values?” is a simple question with an interesting answer. Values form a crucial part of the guidance system we have been referring to. That guidance system helps us make choices, decisions and take action. Most of the time, this system operates unawares, taking us through our days on a sort of autopilot. We become aware of the values system when we are faced with difficult choices, dilemmas, paradox and other significant moments requiring a decision from us, that have important consequences.

What are values?
Photo credit: Gabby Canonizado

Defining Values

When seeking to answer the question “what are values”, here’s a simple definition to try on for size:

Values are what we hold important when making decisions or taking action.

Values then are beliefs, ideas, principles that we regard as important. Here is where the emotional side ties in with the thinking side to firm up our guidance system. What are values? Things that can usually be articulated. They have usually been learned via analysis of our own experience or taught to us by others. Values, for the most part, require language. They are conceived of or held in the “thinking” or cognitive components of our brains and linked to our emotional centers. When speaking about values with someone, you can feel and sense the emotional connection. Values without an emotional connection, loose their relationship to our emotional guidance system. When someone goes against one of our functional values (defined below) we might get irritated, when they go against one of our core values (defined below) we might become quite angry.

Categories of Values

A great deal of research and study has gone into the concept of values, and what are our values on a number of levels.  Mostly this research looks at the formation of values, the categorization of values and finally how they are deployed.  Categories for values might include:

  • Functional values, those things we hold important to help us get through our everyday or working lives.  There are a myriad of these.  We can often be a bit flexible with these depending on the circumstance.
  • Core values, the beliefs and values that we use to guide how we lead our lives overall, how we engage, interact with and treat others.  We are less flexible with these and our list isn’t usually that long a list.
  • Organization values, these are the values and guidelines that shape behavior and decisions in the organization context.  We have to be careful here.  The values posted on the wall, or cited in the annual report are not necessarily the values we see in practice.  To ascertain the real values of a company, we have to look at the decisions taken, the actions themselves and the behavior of the people in the organization.

What are Values in Operation?

Every conscious decision can be traced to a value as defined by the above.  When we set our alarm, 30 minutes earlier than usual to assure we are at an early morning meeting on time, we are deploying at least one, and possibly several values.  When we decide to work the weekend to finish a critical project, we aren’t now saying that our personal weekend time, or time with the family isn’t important, we have just, for that moment, placed completing the project higher on the list.  Family time is still important to us.  When you look at values this way, there is only one list.  What happens is values change their location on that list depending on context, circumstance and other factors.

A critical point here is that whatever the category, our conscious actions are determined or at least guided by one or more values.  These values might change in their ranking on a list.  Let’s look at organization or company values.  The risk with putting these values on a list, then promoting them heavily, is that they now appear fixed (the way most of us think about values).  The problem is that circumstances change and at times, our values need to flex with them.  A simple example might be posting a corporate value such as “We will always put our people first”.  That is a pretty powerful statement.  Let’s say the market for our product crashes and we have to reduce the size of our working population.  Reducing our numbers is in conflict with a core stated value.  The value in operation is sustaining the company for the long term.

We can now easily see the role that values play in shaping and maintaining culture.  I heard it said once that a culture is most simply described as the sum-total of the values by which it operates.

Values work in both directions.  We filter events, observations and experience through our values system.  This is the application of values to things coming at us, i.e. from the external environment.  Then, we use our guidance system, powered by our emotions and our values, to determine what we will do, how we will respond.  This is values working from the internal direction.

What are Value Dynamics?

I recently suggested to a relatively young senior manager that his values might have changed over time and might well change further as he matures through his career.  He was quite adamant that his values had never changed, nor would they.  This is unfortunately what many of us have been taught to believe, from a rather limited view of human development and the impact that development has on our values system.  Let me provide a simple frame for how this can work from a people perspective.  As we grow and develop, we move through an I-We-They journey of who is important.  “I” from infancy onward is always important.  As we mature and experience others in the world and as our brain and neural systems develop, we begin to perceive strong affiliations.  Now, while “I” is still important, “We”, our affiliation groups be it family, friends, team, become equally important.  We balance our actions and decisions to accommodate and support those in our group.  For every “We”, there is a “They”.  As we reach higher levels of development maturity, we begin to see the needs of others, outside our group, as important as well.  As organisations mature, you see them move from “I” – this company is the only thing that matters – to “We” – our industry and our collaboration partners are very important to us – to “They” – the communities in which we operate, our suppliers and our customers needs are held in high regard.  That’s the people side.  As we grow and participate in larger and more complex environments our sense of “what” is important changes as well.  We begin to look at wider sets of variables and realize at times that the “fixed” rules we operated under, as “values” don’t apply so easily in ever more complex environments.  This is why continued exploration into values is so important in the world we live in today, we need to keep examining, evolving and emerging our own values set, to keep what we hold important in an ever changing context.

What are Values? In Summary:

We’ve explored a number of key points in relation to what values are:

  • Values form a key element of our personal guidance system and link our thinking and cognitive aspects with the emotional aspects of our mental functioning.
  • Values are simply what we hold important when making decisions and taking action
  • Values show up, if we look for them, in all our conscious decision and choice making processes, from setting an alarm to making large people related decisions in an organization
  • While values are all on one list, and change in their location on the list based on circumstance, they also show up in different categories such as functional, core and even organization values
  • Values are in constant operation at individual, organizational and cultural levels
  • Our values change, evolve and emerge as we develop.  This holds true for individuals as well as organizations or even entire cultures.

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