The danger of a shallow understanding of values

The meaning of values have always intrigued me. It has been an important part of understanding myself and why I behave and react in a certain way in a particular situation. Everyone has values based on needs which drive their behavior. Some people are quite aware of them other are more unconscious. In addition we might share the same values but prioritize them differently, many times depending on the situation we are currently in.

What I find the most interesting is that a value without being deeply explored is JUST a word. Different people assign different expectations and norms to a certain word. Take the word ‘leadership’ as an example. It is a word used by many as a value they appreciate. You will see posts and articles on various social media about how important it is with leadership. Shallow understanding of values and norms is what causes the surprise/reaction when someone behaves different from your expectations even though you are concurring to the same value. At least you think you do.

There is actually phenomenon which describes this shallow understanding as the false-consensus effect.

Due to false­-consensus bias we like to believe that we share the same values with our co-­workers and friends. What we believe is “right” and “wrong” seems clear. But somewhere along the way we begin to learn that our norms and values might be based on shallow agreements. Norms are rules of behavior or structure, considered “acceptable” by a given group in a given situation. We quickly assign meanings and evaluations when we feel norms are abused but rarely explore them. For example, if a colleague chooses to consistently leave work early, we might interpret it as an abuse of freedom and responsibility. Instead, what if we considered it an excellent opportunity to examine how our norms might be different.


Exploring how our norms might be different

In a workshop I did a few years ago on the topic we explored different norms by going through some situations with alternative responses to a situation. We did this with out assigning any values in the beginning. This is an example of such a situation:

You are working in a testing team where most of your colleagues are at the office between 8–17. However there is one guy who almost always turns up around noon and works late until 21 in the evening, so he misses your daily morning meetings and all communication with this guy must wait until he is at the office.

  1. Nothing at all. It’s not my business to decide my colleagues working hours. His boss should do that.
  2. I don’t see it as a problem. We can update him about what’s going on when he gets to work.
  3. I think everyone needs to be at work during “normal” working hours so I would ask him why he has so different working hours.
  4. I will speak to his boss to make sure he is at work when the rest of us are.

I had everyone individually answer ten different situations without sharing their answers. Then in small groups they went through the situations and discussed each others answers. It was an interesting exercise to observe the groups discussions. I had considered the situations created as already biased through my experiences and based on the group of people I expected them to have almost the same norms. Also given that it was a hypothetical situation I thought people would answer almost the same. There was however one situation which caused a very heated debate, which I had to interrupt to keep us going. Unfortunately I can’t remember which situation created this discussion. It is however not relevant because it was the discussion itself that was important. Gaining a shared deeper understanding of what the norms are, and how they are described (or defined) can help influence a team’s or organisation’s culture and how well they can function together.

Lead by example

Let’s get back to leadership. One of IKEA’s core values is: “Lead by example”. I think it is a fantastic value. I believe most people think it’s a great motto to live by. But the question is what are the behaviors that reflect this value, what are the norms? What behavior is OK and what is not? As previously mentioned norms are rules of behavior or structure, considered “acceptable” by a given group. Our culture is formed by our behaviors so to change our culture we need to change our behavior.

For me lead by example is to give people the room to grow and evolve, to trust the people we have hired to be able to do their job. Leadership is to be there and support the person if it is needed, to offer feedback if wanted, to listen when people need help. Lead by example is to motivate people and encourage people by being the type of person you want others to be. As the detailed description of the core value says: “It is about being our best self and bringing out the best in each other.”

I leave you with this question to reflect upon— what kind of behavior do we want to mirror “Lead by example”?