Are there any concepts more important in management, leadership and business these days than values? Certainly, it feels as though reference to core values, personal values, company values (or their lack) is ubiquitous and constant. Few company web-sites miss the chance to place a statement of corporate values for all to see, perhaps as a way to differentiate themselves from competitors as well as bring staff closer to the business purpose. And almost no discussion of personal development or leadership development gets very far these days without a call (or questionnaire!) to name, rank and number one’s own values. This is a discourse made more legitimate by, among other things, the burgeoning self-help and self-improvement industry and world of social media.

There are a few problems with all this, though. First, identifying what is important for the self in terms of underlying reasons behind actions should be a process of finding out what connects you to the rest of humanity, not what sets or keeps you apart. Second, the v-word has not just become over-used, it is (in my opinion) also misused. This is not merely a problem of labelling, though there is a vocabulary element, it is an issue of how well our view of ourselves is in tune with reality.

When individuals list their personal values, I would say that what they are involved in is a vocabulary exercise; they’re naming their beliefs. This is a useful first step, but beliefs can, do and (sometimes) should change. Values, it is said, don’t change. The same holds when organisations develop lists of “core values”, or when societies or groups in society agree codes and norms for legislating, limiting or tolerating certain behaviours, they are articulating a collective system of beliefs, or general principles. These systems look very different in different parts of the world, which – if values don’t change – would indicate that social beliefs are just that, beliefs that can, do and (sometimes) should change. In none of these cases are we at the level of values.

Our rather casual references to the term ‘values’ is in everyday speech and corporate brochure is pervasive but amounts to nothing more than – to paraphrase The Smiths – heavy words so lightly thrown.

Whatever it is that the word value refers to, it should signify something, well, truly significant and foundational. And universal. Because with values we are looking to get at whatever it is that the human species relies on for its continued survival over centuries and millennia. Values are what form different societies, but they are not the that society forms. In other words, universal values lead to local belief systems. They are for social relations but one would expect them to have at least an isomorphic relationship with nature, evolution and questions of life and death. A value should signify (to quote Alan Watts) “the which than which there is no whicher”. Or, perhaps, the ‘why‘ beneath which there is no ‘whyer‘.

In the diagram below, I propose that between actions (which we see) and universal values (which almost defy naming) there are two levels, namely individual beliefs and collective principles (or belief systems). At each step down there is a decreasing availability of choice in the pyramid.

To explain in a bit more detail:

  1. Actions. Assuming behaviours aren’t truly random or completely spontaneous, behind every individual action must lie an individual why, directed or governed (often largely unconsciously) by a personally held belief.
  2. Individual beliefs are personal guidelines or rules for choices in actions in a given situation or context. Individual beliefs answer the question “how should I?” in our interaction with the world around us. We experience this world as if it were not part of us, yet the fact is that our personal rules are not made up by us as individuals, they are defined for us in the communities, social groups, educational systems, cultural background and family systems that we inhabit. Every individual belief has its own why.
  3. Principles and Belief Systems represent the deeper, whys that work this collective level. They are closer to the level of universal values because there is no belief system (that we know of) that doesn’t serve a survival purpose (they are there to maintain the health and well-being of the system, within whatever contextual norms have emerged over time). Belief systems colour and limit what sorts of individual beliefs work or don’t work, but even they have their own whys, and whatever is the common denominator across all human civilisations is where we end up when we need to explain our actions in terms of values.
  4. Universal Values are the deepest and most profound, and we must assume that they are close not just to the human conditioning we see in our belief systems, but the human condition itself. Universal values are not really a matter of language, though culturally we are stuck in the rut of having to use language to conceive them. The human condition can be understood in other ways – through music, dance, laughter, touch, art and so on. Linguistically, universal values appear (for me) as a small and quite literally vital set of imperatives every society and every individual relies on to sustain itself over time.

Having established a line in the sand to challenge mainstream fudging of the differences between beliefs, principles and values, the next step will be to say something about universal values themselves. How is it possible to identify them, and should we try? That is the topic of a future article.

Written by our professor Chris Dalton