The Problem of Values


A few years ago, I participated in the first month or so of discussions that much later became a book called Powered by Principle, by my friend and colleague, Amie Devero.  The book was built in part on the work we did with clients over a 5 year period.

Since then, however, I have started to realize how unreliable my value-radar has become.

For example, I was in a meeting with a client when they asked me why I always preferred to drink water.  We had a little back and forth on the topic, and I joked about possible imaginary reasons when it struck me that their guesses were all incorrect because no-one in the group was a runner.

(More often than not, I drink a lot of water in order to recover from early morning exercise, in the hope of recovering fully for the following day’s workout.)

They were guessing incorrectly, because they had no idea what “value” was driving my drinking behaviours. Also, while there was no dispute that I was in fact drinking water, there were any number of possible values that were driving my actions.

How then could we even talk about values?  Were they anything else than a convenient construct that we could neither verify nor validate?  I would admit that I could change my mind on the matter, and give different answers about underlying values driving my drinking depending on my mood.

In this sense, I wholeheartedly disagree with the author of the article: “Why Corporate Culture is a Myth” who says:

The values of a group might be honorable — or not. Unlike the mushier name culture, with its connotation of a cozy melting pot or a delightfully harmonious salad bowl, values includes more than what is outwardly professed, endlessly parroted and tritely canonized on T-shirts and coffee mugs. It also encompasses what is implicit, often deliberately buried and denied. People may talk your ear off about their culture, but values can be seen in real-time … as evidenced by real actions.
In my work as a recruiter, it helps me to think of companies as big, messy families with varying degrees of dysfunction … despite the many talents and productive output of its members. In this context, the challenge becomes less about matching cultures than about elevating values — bearing in mind, of course, how resistant systems are to anything other than mild, incremental change.

If, as the author states, values encompass what is implicit, often deliberately buried and denied, then how can we possibly know what we are even talking about?  He goes on to say that values can be seen in real-time… as evidenced by real actions.


That makes no sense to me.  Actions can be seen in real time.  Values can’t.  The best that we humans can muster are judgements about the actions we observe.

To turn them into values, or even “true values” is a huge step to make that probably isn’t worth making in a corporate context.  Maybe it’s better for us to focus on behaviours than values, and to be honest about the fact that we are always imputing values on others behaviours.  Unfortunately, this often take us down the road of condemning other people and actions that we dislike.

It’s at this point that companies launch Values programs… a nebulous exercise that has more to do with our prejudices than what is happening in the real world.