The Values to Action Gap

The Values to Action Gap
Photo by Farnoosh Abdollahi on Unsplash

Our values are important. The shared values of those we work with are important. The 'Espoused Values' of the organisation we work within are important. But those values only become, valuable when they tessellate with aligned actions.

It is incredibly frustrating when we see others acting not in accordance with their espoused values. For most people it is even more impactful when we feel our own actions are at threat diverging from alignment with our values.

It is not unusual for a CEO/CXO/Leader or leadership team to espouse a set of values and then allow, enable or exhibit behaviours that conflict with those values. Why does this happen?

"never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" Hanlon's Razor

It is easy, when we see someone falling short of their values, to immediately attribute malice.

Ok, so its stupidity then? Maybe? although there are probably softer words we can use to describe this, ranging from ineptitude, to being disconnected, whether from hierarchy or lack of care, from the reality of the organisation. For example, i've seen a senior leader personally act in strong accordance to their values, but then be completely oblivious to the awful behaviour of their direct reports.

A common cause is mis-alignment between incentives and values. These incentives can be explicit, performance incentives like bonuses are the classic example. but incentives can also be implicit and also personal to the individual. I've seen senior leaders with long term, life changing incentives consistently run rough-shod over their espoused values. However i doubt these people would have recognised the gap between their behaviour and their values, as that long term incentive creates a fog over their perception.

How do we avoid this situation? I think the first step is to recognise that anyone, with enough drivers and incentives to the contrary might behave in conflict with their values, and for the most part this may not be conscious, but driven by a stress reaction to the pressures of incentives. I think its also worth recognising that poorly defined incentives risk causing unintended behavioural consequences. Thirdly, i think its worth being really clear around what both the implicit and explicit incentives are that drive behaviour, the strongest might be the implicit ones that live only in the head of the individuals.