Working with values and principles

This posting is by Reflexivepractice’s first guest contributor, Dr Stephen Billing. Stephen is a graduate of the doctoral programme at the Complexity and Management Centre and a successful consultant working in New Zealand. You can read his blog here. In this posting Stephen explores the relationship between values and principles and contrasts the rule-based thinking of Stephen Covey with a more emergent understanding of values.

In 1992 I purchased Stephen Covey’s famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has been influential in many countries around the world. Covey says that if we want to change a situation, then first we have to change ourselves, and to change ourselves we have to first change our perceptions.

‘Self-evident principles’

Covey posits that there are universal principles that are self-evident and are part of most enduring religions and social philosophies. On page 33 he says that these principles are “objective reality” – they are natural laws woven into the fabric of every civilized society throughout history. He gives as examples of these principles fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity. While principles are the ‘objective reality’ or the territory, our ‘subjective reality,’ or the map we use to attempt to describe the territory includes our values and our practices. According to Covey, practices are specific activities or actions, that might work in one circumstance but not necessarily in another – Covey gives the example of how practices that work in raising one child might not work with a second child. Principles enable people to create a variety of practices to deal with different situations. Values are not the same as principles, according to Covey. He points out that a gang of thieves can have shared values, but when we value correct principles, we have truth, which is a knowledge of things as they are.

It seems strange to read these ideas now, 17 years later. At the time when I first read these ideas they seemed unremarkable and to be presenting ideas that were rather self-evident, a bit like Covey’s principles themselves were claimed to be. Now, apart from being dissatisfied by the explanation of the difference between principles and values, most of all I am struck by the distinction between principles which are said to be self-evidently right, and values, which are said to be able to be either right or wrong. It seems to depend on whose values they are and how closely they match the principles that Covey or others have determined are right. I am left wondering who decides what the principles are – Covey suggests that these principles are to be found in the major religions and philosophies. But over the centuries many wars have been fought between those with different religious beliefs, each believing that their principles were ‘righter’ than the other. At the end of the day, someone would have to be the determinant of what these right principles are. Covey’s test of a principle is to consider its opposite – would we consider unfairness, deceit, baseness, uselessness etc as solid foundations for an effective life? Probably not. But nevertheless, in our practical world each day we have to weigh up what it is fair to do, what it is honest to do, what actions would embody integrity.

When a staff member complains to a manager about the behaviour of a colleague, when an employee complains to a union about a manager, when making decisions about closing down a plant or moving operations offshore, managers are having to weigh up many conflicting and competing considerations, the diverse intentions of their bosses, their staff, their customers, suppliers, politicians and other stakeholders. Working out what principles such as fairness and integrity mean in each case can make for tough thinking and can make decision making very hard. In some ways, that is what managers are paid for.

Emergent values

It was George Herbert Mead who pointed out that these principles (he called them cult values) have to be negotiated all the time in each new situation. They are never resolved forever. For example, you may make a decision about how to handle one complaint, but when the next complaint comes, the circumstances have to be weighed up and the decision about how to enact the principle has to be made all over again. These principles or cult values exist only as idealizations. They are not actual physically existing things themselves. The only way these idealizations become physically manifest is in how we negotiate these idealizations in our problem solving and decisions we make in the situations that we face on a day to day basis. And I would therefore like to argue, along with Doug Griffin, that our ethical test is in how we account to others and to ourselves for the way we negotiate our idealized principles in the messy world of our organisations.

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