My Values have a price, whereupon I will abandon them!


This post is inspired by a 12 March, 2011 National Post article titled “Safe supply in a perilous oil world”, by Claudia Cattaneo, page FP3. It picks up on a semi-implicit notion about values that was discussed in yesterday’s post.

This gist of the article is Americans are warming up to Alberta Oil Sands oil because of political instability in  other oil producing jurisdictions. As a Canadian, there is a delicious irony here. The US has been critical of oil sands due to its environmental issues and some jurisdictions have even begun to ban its entry into their market areas (California?). So the value issue here is convenient oil supply vs. environmental. But the irony is that environmental preferable supply carries with it despots, human rights infractions, and the like. Couple this with the mid-east turmoil, security of supply is jeopardized and the price of gas has risen dramatically over the last few weeks. So apparently the oil sands may not be so bad now.

Is there a sense of hypocrisy here? As long as my values don’t inconvenience me too greatly I will vigorously apply them. When the inconvenience becomes too great, I will set them aside. Are we even talking about values anymore?

My proposal is we have two levels of values:

  • The first are the essential ones. They are applicable in any human/person’s situational context (i.e., Robinson Crusoe or a highly developed urban environment). These are values that are never abandoned, they  are most helpul during difficult decision moments.
  • The second are instrumental ones. They are used to help make choices amongst options with competing qualities (e.g., environmental attributes vs. convenience of supply in the article’s example above). These are values that are selected and set aside based on mitigating circumstances.

Having instrumental values is not an act of hypocrisy. We need them and they are extremely useful. And, they have a “price/application limit”. We will no longer use them when they no longer seem to apply or are too onerous. Personally, I am more comfortable calling these “decision making criteria”. Regardless they are values (we use them because they are of value to us – they have instrumental value).

So, how should we think about this when developing and living our organizational core values?

  1. Would probably be helpful to be clear about which ones are essential or instrumental. Core values would certainly contain the essential ones. We would not consider doing the specific business transaction(s) if we had to compromise on them.
  2. The limits of applicability should probably be clear regarding our instrumental values: when we would set them aside, or how we would deal with competition between them. This is so people in the organization know how to deal with value conflicts.
  3. Would probably be helpful to know how we would process situational conflicts amongst our essential values (having fewer of them will obviously help).

An intriguing implication arising out of abiding by our essential values is: If we were to forego a “profitable/beneficial” opportunity because of the value conflict, would we be committing a sacrificial act?

I would argue no. Sacrifice by definition is foregoing something of greater value for something that is of lesser value. Abiding by ones essential values at the loss of any  specific opportunity is not an act of sacrifice. I know people could throw out, “What about those who give up their lives for others?” Think about it for a moment,  and you should understand why this not the case.

We often use the word sacrifice in such a loose manner, typically as a qualifier of how large the price is (my life, my career, etc.). Sacrifice is a statement of comparative value between at least two alternatives.

How about when we learn that we have made an inopportune choice? We selected a decision that we did not think we were going to comparatively lose more on, then find out we did. If we call bad resulting outcomes (e.g., lose money) sacrifices so be it. Personally I call these bad/poor/unfortunate deals. The results or outcomes were less than we hoped for.

I would use the term sacrifice in the context of knowingly making a choice where I would give up more than I gained.

In practical terms, we usually have more than one essential value. What happens when we are in a conflict situation between one or more essential value? This is the proverbial “lifeboat” dilemma.

Speaking only for myself, I have learned that if I can’t creatively extricate (one option here of course is walking away from the deal) myself from this sort of dilemma, I have resorted to one of the following options:

  • Refuse to play the choosing amongst values game and face the consequences.
  • Make the forced selection of one value over another and pay the consequences of making and subsequently living (the lingering sense of betrayal) with the choice.

The aspect that has a large part to play in the above choices is who else is involved? So I suspect I have one core essential value: take responsibility for my choices (the corollary is of course, others shouldn’t inappropriately have to).

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About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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