‘If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not your values.’ (Jon Stewart)
We sometimes discover what our values are when someone behaves, or something happens, that cuts sharply across them. It can be like a glass filled with liquid that gets knocked. We find out what’s inside when we see what spills out. At times, we’re surprised to find that our true values are quite different to those we espouse or identify with rationally. We don’t just think values. We feel them. Gut level, heart-wrenching feeling. If you don’t feel it when challenged or experiencing a clash, it doesn’t matter enough to you. If in doubt, shake the tree, see what falls and feel it land. Impact.
I was sitting in an awkward circle during a coaching workshop. It was one of those activities where a group is placed in a room with no instructions and no guidance, to see what emerges. I felt curious as a conversation gradually unfolded… until, that is, a forceful-sounding man assumed the role of leader and put down a shy-looking woman sitting opposite me. Without thinking, I leapt straight to her defence and challenged the power figure, as if the woman needed saving. The group remarked later on my response – and that’s when I became aware of Stephen Karpman’s Drama Triangle.
It wasn’t a rationale that had triggered me but a behaviour that crossed a deeply-held value. That was some years ago now and, although I no longer default to rescue mode, it helps in part to explain why so much of my life and career have been dedicated to international development, advocacy and relief work. I’m a follower of Jesus, I hate that the poor are so vulnerable and I want my life to make a difference. What gets you up in the morning or keeps you awake at night? What are your true values, and how do you know? If push comes to shove, what are the lines that you will not cross?
My daughter is a guinea pig. This afternoon in the bright sunshine, I invited her to take part in an experiment. First, we stepped out into the street and, gesturing to a line of cars parked at the roadside, I asked, “If you were to buy a car, what colour would you choose, or definitely not choose?” She answered, “I’d love a white car.” “OK,” I replied, “let’s go for a walk into town and back. Your task is to count every white car that we pass. If you have the same number as me when we get back here, I will give you £10. How does that sound?” She grinned and willingly agreed.
An hour later, we stopped back where we had started and I asked her, “So, how many red cars did you see?” She looked at me blankly. “I didn’t see any red cars. I counted 206 white cars.” In fact, we had passed 93 red cars, yet she had been so focused on the white cars that she hadn’t seen a single one. This simple experiment illustrates an important psychological phenomenon known as selective attention: “The ability to pay attention to a limited array of all available sensory information…a filter that helps us prioritize information according to its importance.” (Bertram Ploog, 2013).
Gestalt psychotherapist Geoff Pelham comments that, in any given relationship or situation, we notice who or what matters most to us (The Coaching Relationship in Practice, 2015). This idea of who or what matters most reflects beliefs, values and emotions. In this exercise, my daughter was influenced and motivated by her beliefs (that this experiment would serve some useful purpose), values (the prospect of a £10 reward) and emotion (her choice of a colour she likes). These factors combined to ensure concentration on a task (counting white cars) that required selective attention.
Why is this insight significant in our work with people? The principle extends beyond literal-visual perception to deeper psychological processes too. Our beliefs, values and emotions subconsciously influence our focus and act as filters. We construe personal-shared narratives based on what we perceive. Such narratives appear to us as-if reality, as-if totality, and often without any awareness of who or what we have excluded. As such, narratives always point to and reveal, implicitly, who and what matters most to a person, group or culture, rather than to a definitive account of reality per se.
A key question is, therefore: who or what are we, and others, not-noticing? If we can enable a shift in perception, a re-shaping of a narrative, what then becomes possible?
Interested to do further reading in this area? See: The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of our Everyday Wonderland.
‘Good is the enemy of great.’ (Jim Collins)
When we look out for great qualities, talent or performance; when we attempt to codify great competencies and to recruit, develop or retain them; we need to ask ourselves seriously: ‘Great - in relation to what?’
An existential view reframes everything. If shifts our attention from, say, ‘How can we make this more profitable?’ to ‘How can we make this more purposeful?’ or, ‘What is my career trajectory?’ to ‘What is my calling?’
Good is the enemy of great? Yes, if by ‘good’ we mean mediocre, a failure to reach a true, positive potential. No, if by ‘good’ we mean those ethical-spiritual values that call us back to who and what really matter most.
How do good and great feature in your life and work, and those of your clients – and how do you/they manage the relationship between them?
How progressive are you?
‘This is a new and progressive policy.’ There’s something about the word progressive that sounds like it’s an intrinsically good thing. After all, who would want to lay claim to an old and regressive policy? Progressive = good; regressive = bad, right? In principle, to be progressive is to be an advocate of social change; particularly when it comes to representing the best interests of ordinary people through politics. Would you vote for a politician or party that chose to stand against such things?
This is, however, where waters start to get muddy. Who are the so-called ordinary people and who knows and decides what’s in their best interests? Are the ‘ordinary people’ uniform in their experiences, hopes, needs and aspirations? What if making progress in one area or demographic has detrimental impacts in another? If everyone insists their policy is progressive, and if policies disagree sharply on fundamental issues and goals, does ‘progressive’ have any meaning at all?
At this point, we may shake our heads in wonder, bewilderment and dismay. Yet I can offer us a solution; a new and progressive code-breaker, if you like. Progressive means, ‘Going in the direction I want things to go in’; regressive means, ‘Moving away from the destination I want to reach’. Simple. So, next time you hear someone stake a claim to the word – pause and inquire deeply into what lies hidden beneath it: beliefs, assumptions and values; whose goals and interests it serves.
‘I don’t believe in riches, but you should see where I live.’ (U2)
My house is made of cardboard. It’s called a new-build, but the ‘build’ bit has to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. If you cough outside, the walls shake. Cold air howls through the double-glazing, conveniently blowing the dust off the curtains. Cracks decorate the walls and door frames in elegant postmodern style and the slightest of sounds travels through everything. The builders on-site blare out music daily, with a thumping bass so loud that many nightclubs would envy it.
They drive heavy machinery persistently so very close to the house that everything – and I mean, everything – shudders. The room lights flash on and off like a delinquent strobe as they go past. My alarm clock travelled 18cm across the window ledge and turned to face the opposite direction. ‘It’s just the house settling; nothing to worry about.’ There are tyre tracks across my front lawn. The workers are completely and utterly impervious to feedback, as if specially trained to not-hear.
Best and worst of all, there are ‘Considerate Constructors Scheme’ posters displayed (or ripped down by angry locals) all over the site. If you ask me, that’s the rich icing on the metaphorical moving-in cake. It makes a painfully ironic joke out of corporate core values. As I heard one brand expert say, ‘If you don’t live out your values, they’re not worth a flying f***’. I might have said, ‘…the paper they’re written on’, but hey – she might have had a rough time with builders too.
Here’s the thing: Values matter. They’re about truth, integrity and trust. Bottom line: Make it real. Actions speak louder than intentions or words.
Do you need help with discovering, creating or living your core values?
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What principles, beliefs or values guide your most important decisions? Olson (below) sounds a word of caution and Nickols offers a useful grid. Let me know what you think!
‘There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.’ (Thomas Sowell)
It was a critical juncture in my life so I met with a friend and mentor, Adrian Spurrell, to think things through. I had lots of ideas and some concerns but struggled to clear the mental fog that was amassing in my head. What to choose, what to do, when there are so many issues and options in the frame yet no clear and definitive way forward? Adrian challenged me by drilling down hard to my values, to what (for me) is non-negotiable and what isn’t, to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff. The serious conclusions I reached in that conversation 2 years ago have guided my major life decisions since.
This approach resonates with Dr Deborah Olson’s view in Psychology of Achievement (2017) who comments that: ‘When clarifying your goals, be clear about what you want – and consider the things you don’t want to risk.’ Don’t want to risk adds a useful and important dimension to more conventional goal-orientated conversations that focus solely on what we hope to obtain or achieve. I worked with one organisation where the founder lived an aspirational life and achieved amazing things at work but lost sight of his family. His daughter committed suicide. The ethical stakes can be very high indeed.
Fred Nickols offers a simple and practical tool called a ‘Goals Grid’ that can be used to help identify goals and priorities (https://www.nickols.us/versatiletool.pdf) at personal, team and organisational levels. It poses two key questions: ‘Do I/we have it?’ and ‘Do I/we want it?’, places these questions on the axes of a 2-by-2 grid, adds the alternative responses of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ against each question and proposes an action for each domain. The resultant combinations and options are: Have + Want = Preserve; Have + Don’t want = Eliminate; Haven’t + Want = Achieve; Haven’t + Don’t Want = Avoid.
Nickols’ model can be applied flexibly and creatively to incorporate a diverse range of helpful angles in leadership, OD, coaching and training conversations; e.g. strategic-visionary, spiritual-existential, psychological-relational and tactical-systemic. It ensures that trade-offs are made as conscious decisions with transparency and awareness. It also reminds that, when reaching towards a brighter future, to notice, value and protect who and what matters most. ‘Not jeopardising what we already have can matter as much as gaining new things.’ (Olson, 2017). Always keep values in sharp view.
‘Kairos moments’. Pivotal experiences. What have been the turning points in your career? What happened and what impacts did they have? How have you learned to ride the waves?
I wasn’t trying to be difficult. It felt like an issue of justice. I was in my late teens and this was a trade union meeting in a local town hall. The room was packed full and I sat upstairs in a balcony. The union leaders were in powerful positions, sitting in a row at the front table. Nobody dared to speak or to raise a challenge. To lose membership meant to lose one’s job. ‘We have mortgages to pay and mouths to feed.’ I valued the trade union ideal but, somewhere along the way, this body had lost its visionary, democratic principles. I disliked the way its leaders abused power and traded on fear.
After making long, tedious speeches, reminiscent of a bygone communist era, the main leader stood up and asked if anyone had anything to say. A tense and tangible silence filled the room. I could feel my heart pounding and nerves straining throughout my body. I had to say something, I had to speak. So, much to my colleagues’ amazement, I stood up, took a deep breath and advocated a proposal for democratic reform. The whole room gasped…then fell back to stunned silence. The leader, now red with rage, shot me down for daring to challenge his authority – and inadvertently proved my point.
I was treated like a hero as I left that day, work mates crowding around, punching my shoulders and patting my back with looks of surprise and admiration. It was a defining moment for me. I had stood up to authority, taken a public stance on my beliefs and values and, by God’s grace, managed to stay diplomatic and assertive. There could be no going back now. I organised a union-wide petition and, as a result, came under threat from union reps who warned me that I was ‘playing with fire’. I resigned, left my job and entered human rights and community development work.
I can see a trajectory in my life that had led up to that point, e.g. from when, as a young school boy, I had hated bulling and cruelty to animals and had created an animal rights activist group at school. I can also trace a clear trajectory through my life and career in subsequent years, e.g. in leadership, coaching and OD roles in charities and INGOs, based on my spiritual-existential-humanistic beliefs and values. I still hold that same passion to support people who are poor, vulnerable or oppressed in the world. What have been the defining moments in your life and career? How did you get here?
How can I help you work out your career-calling? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
'Worthwhile elephants make it real.'
‘Of course.’ I can hear you thinking. ‘Tell us something we don’t already know.’ Or, perhaps – and quite reasonably so – you are wondering what on earth I am talking about. If, by chance, I have spiked your curiosity, let me break it down into 3 parts that form important ingredients of inspiring and effective conversations at work: worthwhile; elephants; make it real. It’s about a degree of focus and quality of contact that can release energy, engender engagement and achieve great results.
First: worthwhile. ‘If we were to be having a really useful conversation, what would we be talking about?’ (Claire Pedrick). ‘What outcome from this conversation will mean our time together will have been well spent?’ Or, ‘First things first – begin with the end in mind.’ (Stephen Covey). The aim here is to clarify goals and aspirations, test implicit assumptions and co-create focus. It addresses the question: ‘Of all the things we could spend time doing together, what would make this valuable?’
Second: elephants. ‘The most valuable thing any of us can do is find a way to say the things that can’t be said.’ (Susan Scott). It’s about naming the proverbial elephants in the room or, in Gestalt, speaking the unspoken, saying the un-said. ‘What are we not talking about that, if we were to talk about it, would release fresh insight and energy in this conversation…and in this relationship too?’ This is an invitation to ‘radical candour’ (Kim Scott), to practise courage, disclosure and openness.
Third: make it real. ‘What matters most to you in this?’ It’s about being real…doing real…avoiding an unhelpful, distracting dance around the most important questions and issues in the room. Cultural complexities surface here: how to hold conversations that are open and honest and, at the same time, respectful of different cultural nuances and norms. The core principle here is ‘challenge with support’ (Ian Day & John Blakey): having the conversations we need to have to move things forward.
Have you ever felt truly seen? Perhaps the romantic gaze of a secret admirer from across the room? Perhaps a boss, colleague or friend who acknowledged your best efforts, talents and achievements? Perhaps an encounter where you felt exposed, vulnerable – and yet accepted? There’s something about being seen that can be and feel tremendously affirming, reassuring and life-giving. In some cultures, it’s as if we don’t truly exist until seen by another; whether that be e.g. God, a lover, a friend or a family member. In some deep existential way, I know that I am because you perceive me.
Consider the alternative: how it is to be and to feel unseen, ignored or invisible. It’s as if, somehow, our very humanity, value and existence can be unrecognised, marginalised or diminished. It can feel socially, psychologically and existentially alienating. I was struck, therefore, by the moving example of a student friend in the Philippines this week who spontaneously stepped outside her own world. This girl visited and said hello to some of the poorest people who live in shacks at the roadside beside her college. In this simple-yet-profound act she saw the unseen and, in doing so, the invisible became visible.
I believe there are parallels in our organisations here. I think back to some amazing leaders and colleagues who have seen me, often spotting gifting and potential that was not-yet-alive in my own awareness. I also think back to places that have felt stifled by hierarchy and bureaucracy, where people were viewed by job titles and as employees rather than as whole, creative, wonderfully-complex human beings. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, who do you see and not-see? What have been your best/worst examples of seeing and being-seen? What can you do to see the unseen..?
Who or what is important to you? Who or what do you value most? I’ve heard it said that we can know who or what we value in practice, which sometimes differs from who or what we value in principle, simply by looking at our diaries and bank account statements to see who and what we spend our actual time with and money on. It’s a crude measure but can be revealing – especially as we can be prone as people and groups to deceive ourselves by believing what we want to believe.
In Britain, we often value e.g. individuality, effort and achievement. You could think of this as affirming: standing on our own two feet, trying hard and reaching stretching goals that are perceived as worthwhile by UK culture and the wider nation-community. I’ve heard some people say that, as British, we are only impressed by a person, team or country that manages to achieve something better than we believe we could have achieved ourselves. ‘I could have done that’ is a subtle put-down.
Against this backdrop, I was challenged and inspired last week by a girl from a very different culture who discovered that a fellow student had been excluded from taking part in a drama production team because she had some difficulties with her speaking. This girl instinctively showed empathy and compassion, valued the person, reached out, drew her in and modelled social inclusivity rather than simple task achievement. I wondered what I would have done. She reminded me of Jesus.
Why is this so significant? Our values reveal and shape something profoundly important about who we are in the world. They influence our stance, focus, decisions and boundaries. I’ve often found that working with values as a leader, OD, coach or trainer has had a transformational impact on people, teams and organisations. There’s something about, ‘What really matters to you in this?’ that can feel so much deeper than, ‘What are your goals?’ So – who or what matters most to you?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!