Values Ecosystem


I actually enjoy it when someone causes me to re-examine my core assumptions and values.  I never know what I will find and the exercise is always invigorating.  A recent post by Dan Rockwell, The Most Important New System You Could Implement in 2016 stimulated the most recent trip down this path.   You can read the post for yourself –it is an excellent one – at your leisure.  In it, Dan makes a strong case for linking values with behaviors.  Essentially, values that are not acted upon are valueless.  You will have no argument from me on that point.

There was one sentence in the post that caught my eye and triggered a response from me.  He wrote: “The most important new system you could implement is one that enables you to evaluate and align behaviors with values.”  I added my thoughts to the comments following the post and Dan responded.

Steve:  I like to think of it as an environment or ecosystem of values and behaviors. There needs to be room for evolution and adaptation, supported by the alignment meetings and such. Terrific post, Dan.

Dan:  Thanks Steven. I’ve read that our values don’t change. Your comment suggests that they could. I know mine are evolving. Perhaps the core ideas don’t change, but expression might.

Dan’s thoughts made me stop to consider the question of changing values.  Can they really change or are the core ones foundational and essentially carved in stone?  In general, I would be willing to admit that core values are relatively static for most human beings.  And yet, there are many documented instances where external events have shaken a human being’s core values at their foundation and consequently wrought a tectonic shift. While not perhaps tectonic, I have my own story to relate by way of example.

At one time, I despised many individuals with viewpoints – and more important, values – in radical opposition to my own. I devalued them as human beings and I had a rhetoric to accompany that viewpoint.  My act of devaluing was a behavior, but it was driven by a core value (expressed if not precisely perceived or understood) that linked their worth as human beings to my set of values.  Consequently, I was in the habit of judging other human beings in black and white terms which allowed me to dismiss their point of view on anything out of hand.  One day, an event occurred that afforded me a glimpse into the life of one of these people in a way that demonstrated clearly that no human being has a perfect monopoly on evil or good – right or wrong. The insight was transformational and some of my core values changed that day.  It has altered completely the way I work with adversaries. (This link is an articulate follow-on to that self-revolutionary idea).

In articulating this example, I come back to Dan’s reply.  On the surface, I would aver that values do sometimes change.  But that statement represents just one viewpoint. Another equally valid one is that perhaps we don’t really know or recognize all of our core values at a point in time, and that life is the process of testing our values against circumstance and context, stripping away the misperceptions and irrelevancies to reveal the true nucleus, much the same as Michelangelo “released” his figures from the raw marble.

I think this is a useful distinction when working in a leadership role.  Just as personal values may be an evolutionary process, most certainly shared group values are as well. Groups are more fluid than individuals, with members joining and leaving and thus continually changing the mix of shared and unshared values. The successful leader, therefore, engenders an ecosystem wherein these values may be tested together against circumstance and context, evolving a shared value set that is more life affirming for the group.  Such an environment nurtures those behaviors that create true value in the real world.

The reason that I chose “ecosystem” over “system” is because the word implies not so much a structure as a sharing of balanced nourishment that allows the sum of the parts to flourish.  The value-based behaviors sustain the environment for all of the shared values, while allowing adaptation or evolution when context and circumstance demand.  An ecosystem may require tending, not merely management.

How that ecosystem is created and managed is as individual as the group.  However, the shared values can’t be imposed from without.  The group members need to discover and articulate them together.  Leadership provides the opportunity for this through periodic facilitated retreats and review meetings.  Leadership can also provide positive reinforcement for those behaviors that align with the values.

I have to hand it to Dan.  He manages to stimulate my thinking on a regular basis.  This time, he inspired me to test my own assumptions regarding core values.  Just being able to articulate a different point of view regarding their mutability will be instantly useful in my work as a consultant and facilitator.  So thank you, Dan.

Do you have a shared values ecosystem in your organization?  Do you think core values are mutable?