“A gentleman is a gentleman even in the gutter.”
Popular Romanian Proverb
What are your values? How do you find out? How do you test them? How do you know whether your values are really your values?
There are countless exercises designed to help a company find its values. And they are no doubt very effective at generating a consensus set of values that everyone can get behind. I am in some doubt as to whether those can uncover true values. I think only hard experience can test whether a value is truly held or merely a cosmetic convenience.
Values are oh so fragile. As my father put more eloquently than me in this article, everyone agrees with all the values, the question is, which do they put first? When trying times come around, when we have every justification to break our own values, to make an exception, to bypass the principle and to achieve a necessary, important objective, do we?
The more I observe the dynamics at play in a company like GrantTree, the more it seems to me that it is precisely in those moments that our true values are revealed. Moreover, I don’t think there is any other way to reveal them for sure.
An old principle
This is not news. No truly powerful idea is, I suppose. Jesus is reported to have once said1:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
It’s easy to love our friends. It’s easy to have values when they are untested. It’s cheap to have principles when everything is going well. But what do we do when there is real pain and loss and danger at hand? What do we do when faced with those we hate, in person or behaviour? What do we do under real pressure?
Business has a habit of throwing difficult situations at us on a regular basis. There is real work to be done, there are real stakes, things to be gained and lost right now. It maybe does not happen every day, but a business will frequently test our values.
The enemies of our values
There are certain sentences and idea fragments that I often find rising out of the ground like walls, in the way of a consistent application of our values. This is by no means a complete glossary, just a sketch of a few known shapes that the foe might take. Perhaps they can help us recognise when we are being tested.
“But these are special circumstances”
When faced with testing circumstances, it can be very tempting to carve out an exception because the situation is unique. Of course, every single situation we will ever face in our lives is unique. The world does not repeat itself.
If we give in to the temptation to carve, soon there will be nothing but holes in our principles.
Instead, we could accept the uniqueness of the circumstances, and figure out how we can successfully apply our principles to these circumstances.
“But we are running a business here”
Necessity is the mother not just of invention but also of compromise. Often, when a value is being tested, this is the shape of the challenge. Everyone has their own idea of what “running a business” means, of course, but when they bring up this bogeyman they are really saying that they are afraid that the principle or value is not compatible with the survival of the business, immediate or more distant.
If we sacrifice our principles on the altar of survival or profit, they are not really principles at all.
Instead, we could listen with compassion to the fear, accept it, embrace it, and speak to it. Many things can cause fear in the world of business, and we will find ways to be ourselves even in fearful circumstances.
“But we don’t want to set a precedent that could be abused”
This is another message of fear. In a trust-based, open culture environment, there are countless things done every day that could be abused by a “bad actor”. Open cultures rely on the Theory Y model of trusting that people will be good rather than bad. There can and will be exceptions, but my observation is that the benefits far outweigh the occasional, rare, and inevitable abuse.
It is of course very hard to trust Mr X, the future hire who we don’t know, and who therefore may well behave according to Theory X, and be selfish, potentially abusive, and who therefore needs to be controlled. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we must design the systems, the processes, the precedents, to prevent Mr X from abusing the company.
Instead, we could recognise that Mr X is a bogeyman, and replace him in our minds with people we know and understand within our teams. Would the process or decision work in their case? Would they abuse it? Hopefully the answer is “of course not”, and we can put the bogeyman to rest.
“But this person is really bad/misguided/wrong”
The last and perhaps most difficult shape is that of the evil one. When circumstances conspire to make us see the other as The Other, as the Stranger, the Evil, who cannot be reasoned with because this is just how he is, this is his nature, unchangeable. He is Evil and so there is only one thing to do: fight.
One might think that it would be easy to recognise and ignore this bias, but in my experience it is the hardest to defeat. What is violence? Disconnection, from ourselves and from others2. What is its opposite? Connection and love. When faced with someone we perceive as evil, the natural response is violence. Who wants to connect to evil, to love evil? Jesus’s admonition, his central message of love, is heavy… like a cross?
It is so very easy to slip on the battle gear and go to war.
Instead, if only we could find compassion for the other person. If only we could make room within ourselves for the possibility that they are not evil, nor even misguided, but merely see the world in a different way, or are simply angry or fearful themselves. And if we could fight that anger and fear and disconnection with love. But this is very hard work.
If we only could, though, once a connection is built, even just one way, it becomes once again possible to stick to our principles.
Are all your values there yet?
I wish I could say that I have “won” every one of these struggles. I haven’t, not by a long shot. It’s hard to stick to your principles under pressure.
I think it’s important to conclude by noting that just because we fail at our desired values once, or even over and over again, doesn’t mean we don’t care about them. We are but human. All we can ask of ourselves is to recognise the failure and try to do better next time. I imagine this is a lifelong process.