Getting Group Values Right
Dive into this topic via the key explanations and exercises below.
One of the trickiest topics in group culture research is that of “values.”
Values are what you prize over other things.
Valuing things that lead to a culture—i.e. that allow people to be and contribute who they are rather than conform—can be very powerful.
Valuing things that lead to a cult—i.e. that encourage people to conform to particular ways of thinking—can create superficial unity that encourages organizational silence (see Lessons 2.1 and 2.2) and gets in the way of good decisions.
People with different ways of thinking are likely to have different personal values.
If we say we want cognitive diversity, then we can’t force people to value things that step on their own values.
That means we need to stick to values that are inclusive, less prescriptive and more universally principle-based.
But for values to be motivating at all, they can’t be the same as everyone else’s. This creates a bit of a dilemma if we’re trying to rely on values to inspire a group.
Most organizations run into one or more of the following problems when it comes to values:
Values Problem 1:
Many organizations’ values are essentially a “wishlist” of behaviors and principles that they hope their people will strive for.
This doesn’t motivate people if those behaviors and values are not inspiring or authentic.
Further, valuing behaviors often leads to conformity.
It’s much more useful to value a group’s purpose, or reason for being, and letting behaviors flow from that.
Allowing people to use Wisdom rather than prescribing exactly how to think is a more sure formula for great culture.
Values Problem 2:
Many organizations conflate lists of virtues, attributes, skills, behaviors, people, and purpose all together when they talk about their values.
This makes values confusing—like comparing apples and oranges.
This also makes it difficult to reconcile dilemmas when two values conflict. E.g. What do you do when valuing “customers” conflicts with valuing “moving fast” or “integrity”?
The fewer “values” that a group prioritizes, the better for memorability, inspiration, and for resolving dilemmas.
Values Problem 3:
The kinds of attributes and virtues that lead to great cultures are things that help every group. Attributes that don’t help every group become problematic when they’re emphasized too much.
Anything that’s a virtue—e.g. integrity or kindness or wisdom—is helpful to any culture, and should almost go without saying.
Anything that fits into the first three parts of this course—cognitive diversity, cognitive friction, and intellectual humility—is helpful to a culture, and should almost go without saying as well.
Further, emphasizing that you value the kinds of attributes that work for every group makes it hard to stand out as a culture.
E.g. Most Fortune 500 companies list “integrity” as one of their values. The fact that almost everybody values “integrity” makes “integrity” less motivating, and less of a way to bond a group together—even though we need integrity.
The thing that makes a great group different shouldn’t be that its members have good attributes.
Values should focus on what makes your team unique—or else they’re a waste of effort
Two things can make a great culture unique:
The group’s unique purpose
Ideals that are rarely found or aspired to in other similar groups—so long as they are inclusive and universally good moral virtues.
For example, at the time this course was created, Stance apparel (one of my favorite companies) lists on its About Us page, “We exist to celebrate human originality.” This is a fantastically clear statement of the group’s purpose.
Stance then lists Entrepreneurship, Creativity, Performance, Personal Responsibility, and Gratitude as its principles “we live by.” These are essentially core values, and each of them is a synonym for a universally good moral virtue. (These are never bad things!) They are certainly helpful for reminding people to make good decisions, and it would be hard to use them as a way to exclude someone for being different.
Because they are uncommon virtues to emphasize for an apparel company, they are probably somewhat motivating to employees. However, the company’s purpose is much more inspiring.
Many companies that have inspired employees and customers believe their core values are doing the trick, when in fact their strong purpose is responsible.
No matter an organization’s values, Wisdom should be the reigning principle that guides our decision-making when other values conflict.
Remember from Lesson 3.11 that the virtue of Wisdom breaks down into four parts:
Love of Learning
To dig in more into the nuances of this topic, check out this big article on moral virtues and values, and this classic HBR piece on making values mean something, and practice the exercises below.
Pick an organization that lists its “core values” online. Then ask each of the following questions about each value on the list:
Is this value pretty unique to this organization?
Which is this value: a trait/virtue, a skill, a behavior, an idea, a person/people, or a principle?
Does this value obviously conflict with another value on the organization’s list of values?
Is there any scenario you can think of where picking this value above all else could be a catastrophic choice?
Does this value potentially hamper different ways of thinking that might be helpful to the organization at some point?
Would you be motivated by this core value if you worked at this organization?
Think about an organization you belong to. Then ask each of the following questions:
What is the thing that the people of this organization are devoted to in common?
What is the “purpose” of this organization?
What personal values do you have in your life that could help you contribute toward this organization’s purpose?