Ralf Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loud that I can’t hear what you are saying.” Today, many people repeat this as, “Who you are screams so loud that no one can hear what you’re saying.”
Leaders in organizations spend a lot of time talking about values. As an individual, I tell other people my values, and you probably do it too. However, I’ll offer that when we tell someone what we value, we are only serving ourselves. Maybe we want them to be more like us. Maybe we’re insecure and we want validation. Maybe we’re disappointed that we haven’t lived up to our own standards and want to show that others are inadequate too. Who knows? Why care?
#1: when we tell people our values, they look for hypocrisy in our behavior
We should care because of what Emerson so eloquently said: no matter what we tell people they really don’t hear it. As soon as we tell people our values, they immediately look for hypocrisy in our behavior. (Isn’t it interesting that while I’m telling you my beliefs in this blog, you might be thinking that I should stop talking and do something about it. See all that hypocrisy?) When it comes to organizational values, how many times have you seen conflict between actions and words? People not “walking the talk.” Our judgment of hypocrisy, or otherwise feeling something negative toward people or organizations talking about their values, is the cause of something called a worldview defense.
#2: whenever someone’s worldview is threatened, they bolster their own worldview and disparage the worldview of others
Worldview defense is part of something called terror management theory. Over 30 years of research shows that whenever our own worldview is threatened, we often bolster our worldview and disparage the worldview of others. But we do more than that. Experiments show that we often act aggressively toward others who have a different worldview than our own. Makes sense, doesn’t it? We see it everyday: my religion against yours, my politics against yours, my way to make a living against yours, and my way of being in the world against yours. As soon as we tell someone our values, we run the risk of damaging the relationship, or possibly causing that person to take some adverse action toward us. You need to decide if telling someone your values and beliefs is worth the risk.
#3: projecting our own inadequacies on to others limits our growth
We often fail to meet the standards we set for ourselves and others. Let’s say that I value physical fitness but I criticize someone for his rigid gym schedule or for counting his calories at every meal. Is it possible that I feel inadequate because I haven’t measured up to my own standard of physical fitness, maybe I’m still carrying that weight I want to lose, and I’m now trying to make others feel inadequate too? We see this most when people gossip about others.
tell your values when it counts
There are times when values alignment is important. It makes sense that the values of intimate partners and close friends need to be aligned (Not for me. I’d rather different values and a non-judgemental, open mind!). Organizations know that values are the most powerful drivers of behavior. However, many organizations fail miserably at getting employees to live those values because of reasons 1 and 2, above: employees see hypocrisy in their leaders, and employees often start defending their own values or disparaging the organization’s values. Setting and actually managing behavior and performance expectations, and supporting each employee in a way that is right for that employee, better serves organizations.
Before you tell someone what you value or what you believe, ask yourself these questions:
Can I accept that their values are right for them and not say anything?
Am I ready to be seen as a hypocrite?
Am I ready to sacrifice this relationship?
Am I just projecting my own insecurities and inadequacies on someone else?
If you must align your values before you can progress a relationship, then you might start the conversation like this: “I’d like to talk about what I value and how I try to behave in alignment with those values. I don’t always get it right, but these values are important to me. Some of my values may be different than yours. I’d like to understand what you value and how you live those values. Maybe our different values will create conflict. We can talk about how to resolve conflict.”
Lastly, our values are not really our own. Family, friends, religions, employers, the media, and so many other influencers socialize us to believe certain things. We unconsciously pick from a fixed menu of values to create an identity. Those people who are really attached to their values have been very well socialized, indeed.