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  The Value of Values Clarification - JUST STOP THAT NAVEL GAZING

We walked in, individually, and in pairs. Like many other branches, we had interpersonal conflicts, and many of us felt that even in with our small size, we weren't all pulling in the same direction. It just seemed we were not on the same page of the book.

The manager, also a consultant, decided that what we needed was to share our values and beliefs, so that a) we could better understand each other (and thus, reduce conflict), and b) we could develop a "held-in-common" set of values and beliefs about what we did. After a brief introduction, the manager asked us to complete a values clarification survey, that listed a number of things on it, like honesty, teamwork, friendship. We were asked to arrange these in some priority order...I think there were other parts to it, but can't recall. After we had completed the thing, we went 'round the table discussing what we valued. One person had listed love as his primary value, another teamwork, and yet, another independence. It was a jolly time.

We trusted the facilitator enough so that we didn't question the process or the purpose, but you could see the somewhat perplexed looks on the faces of the people there. We had real problems, and here we were talking about things so abstract that they had no relevance to our everyday life. Nobody voiced this concern.

By the end of the day, we had discovered that we were all different. Armed with this information, we could all now explain why someone else acted like a jerk. The next day there was some brief discussion between employees. "What was that all about?" one person said. But, after a day or two, we simply forgot all about it.

Sound familiar? It's becoming more common. A consultant or manager will get it in their head that problems can be addressed through a discussion of values and beliefs of the people that work there. Some sort of retreat is set up, and a facilitator helps people to clarify what they hold dear. The basic premise of the exercise is that a common set of organizational values and beliefs can be created that will guide individual and collective behavior. The reality is that almost nothing happens.

On the surface of it, clarifying values, beliefs and principles seems to be an effective way of getting people on the same wavelength in terms of how the organization is to conduct itself. Unfortunately, this process is based on some erroneous ideas about the role that values, beliefs and principles play in influencing human behavior, both on an individual and collective basis.

I seems like just common sense....shouldn't it work? No, not really.

There is a single major reason why values clarification exercises don't work very well, and a number of small ones. That major reason is:

There is very little relationship between the values and beliefs people express and what they actually do.

This defies common sense. Of course our beliefs, values and principles influence our behavior. Research suggests otherwise. A number of years ago, a group of social psychologists investigated this problem. They approached hotel owners in the southern United States, and asked them several questions about their attitudes and beliefs regarding Afro-Americans. They consistently found that owners expressed positive attitudes, and did not support discrimination.

Some number of months after, the researchers arranged for Afro-Americans to go to those same establishments and request accommodation. Overwhelmingly, they found that those very people who professed non-discriminatory attitudes and beliefs, acted in highly discriminatory ways towards Black customers. Often they were refused, when it was clear there were vacancies. The researchers concluded there was little relationship about what people said they believed, and how they acted.

More recently, an experiment was conducted regarding lost wallets. Wallets with some cash, and full identification information inside were "lost" where people could find them. The purpose was to determine whether people would make an effort to return them to their owners. Surprisingly, about half of the people who found the wallets, did not return them. Presumably, most of these people would profess that they believed in honesty.

If you take a moment to reflect, no doubt you will be able to identify recent situations where you or an employee has acted in a way inconsistent with what they say they believe in.

The truth is that behavior is influenced far more by environmental variables, expected rewards and punishments, than beliefs and values. People act according to the specific situation at the time.

The Value of Values Clarification

In general values clarification exercises don't do much. That is not to say they are totally useless. They have a potential to increase communication, and allow people to get to know each other a bit better. They probably won't act any different, though.

If you want to use values clarification as an organizational tool consider the following tips.

  1. Don't oversell the process. The danger in using the process is that you will create an expectation that things will change as a result of the process. When things don't change (and they usually don't), people look to assign blame to the instigator of the process. Introduce the process as a way of getting to know each other better, not as a means to solve all the organization's problems.

  2. Always anchor, or relate the values expressed to real world problems. If a person says he/she values honesty, or teamwork, ask him/her to explain what that would mean in terms of real-world behavior, for themselves and others.

  3. Encourage people to identify examples where there is a gap between values, or beliefs, and behavior, either on an individual level, or an organizational level. Work to develop ways of doing things that bring the behavior in- line with the beliefs or values.

  4. Remember that you are not going to alter a person’s values and beliefs by talking about them. Values clarification exercises are, at best, an opportunity to share them, not change them.

Final Note

If you want to change people's behaviors, you are far better off focusing on behavior than values and beliefs. The simple act of providing recognition or other rewards for desired behavior is going to be far more effective in changing how work is done, than abstract discussions about values, beliefs and attitudes.

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