Two quick stories to start.
Story #1: An expat in India was having trouble implementing a new sales process. She was trying to get the sales team to input their data into a CRM system that was supposed to greatly scale the ability of the team. The team kept saying they understood the system, but rarely used it and often neglected it entirely.
She said, “Why is it that Indians don’t value processes?”
Story #2: I was explaining certain parts of American culture to a group of young Indians. I talked about how it is (or was) uncommon for young people to live with their parents after they graduate college. Most will move out at least by the time they reach 25. I told them that parents encourage this, and that I even knew some parents who began charging rent to their adult children who stayed in their home.
The group was shocked at this and said, “Why don’t Americans value family?”
Something about these two questions seemed wrong to me. Is it true that Indians don’t value processes? Would any Indian ever stand up and say that? Would any American stand up and say they do not value family?
Not likely. Something else is clearly going on…
What you probably already knew, but never said, about values:
Discussions about values are very important and popular whether you are talking about cultures, companies, or individuals. Companies are eager to display their “core values” on their website. Individuals might talk about something “going against my values”.
However, if we are going to have an intelligent discussion about values, we need to get two things clear:
- Everyone has the same values.
- Everyone ranks them differently.
What is a value?
A value is an ideal to which we try to align ourselves. The value of transparency conjures up an image in your mind about something that is very open and honest. The value of excellence makes you think of something running perfectly without any flaws.
However, values are not behaviors. Don’t miss out on this point. Behaviors are actions we do to demonstrate a value. Good presentation might be a value. Ironing your shirt is a behavior that reflects that value.
All values are good.
Stay with me on this. All values are good. Every value points to an ideal that every person on earth can assign some positive association to.
EVERYONE can say that harmony is a good thing.
EVERYONE can say that honesty is a good thing.
EVERYONE can say that success is a good thing.
All values are ranked.
At this point you are likely saying, “Yes, harmony is a good value, but sweeping emotions under the rug in order to keep the peace is terrible, therefore I don’t agree with you.”
Great point! What you have brought up now is the fact that values compete with each other. You do value harmony, but you value honesty or dealing directly with conflict MORE than harmony.
In doing this you have established that each value has a different “ranking” compared to the others. For example, with the three values listed above (harmony, honesty, success), you will rank all three in terms of their importance to you. Whatever is #3 is still valuable, just not as valuable as the others.
This happens in your brain for every value in the world. They all get ranked in order from 1 to 1000 (or so).
I first learned about this when I heard a CEO listing the core values of his organization. I had already grown weary of “value posturing” where a company lists out a few words that seem to resonate with people and calls them values, but never examines how they affect the organization.
But this CEO said something I hadn’t heard before. He listed the eight core values of the organization and then said, “We don’t publicize this, but all of these are ranked”, and then he proceeded to tell us which values were more important to the organization than other ones. I listened with great amazement as he described which values held more weight in the organization.
He was clear that all eight were very important; it was just that some were more important.
Where do we get our rankings?
Cultural factors definitely play a big role. If you look at 100 Bavarian Germans, their value rankings wouldn’t be exactly the same, but will have less variance than looking at a list of people from 100 different cultures. Other factors are family of origin, economic level, early life experiences, generation, and religion.
Most sociologists will say that your “value system” (or your relative ranking of values) is mostly fixed by the time you are 10 years old, and nearly frozen by 21. Certain major life events, like a diagnosis of a fatal illness, can cause certain values to move up and down a few slots for a little while. However, major value shifts on a grand scale do not happen very often after 21.
Value ranking determines decisions and behaviors.
The main reason that understanding value rankings is important is that value ranking is the grid through which we make all major decisions. These decisions can be hard because they are a clash of at least two values, and we often value both of them very much. However, when the values clash, the one that is ranked higher will influence the decision.
For example, let’s say that you are excited about a new job offer in a different country, but your parents do not think it is a good idea to go. Here, the two value main values competing against each other are obedience to parents and personal happiness (along with a host of other unmentioned factors). Whichever value is ranked higher than the other one will win out.
Can someone value both obedience and happiness? Of course. In fact, they might be #1 and #2. However, in this particular situation, whichever is #1 will get preference.
The CEO who shared his ranking of the eight core values talked about this. For example, let’s say their #1 value was satisfied customers and their #3 value was a commitment to healthy work-life balance. For something to be #3 is a big statement for an organization. In fact, the CEO made it clear that one of the only reasons the organization would ever violate that value, is IF the customer’s happiness was at stake.
While it might seem very blunt to make such a statement, it was actually very beneficial for the team members to know clearly how decisions would be made, and how to interpret decisions passed down by the management.
This decisions-by-value method is similar to a playing card game where the ace is the high card followed by the king, queen, etc. In a given hand, if the ace is played, it always wins. There may be some situations when the 5 beats the 2 and no other values are at play, but all values have a relative ranking and constantly compete against each other.
Back to our stories…
In Story #1, an expat was having trouble implementing a process and blamed her troubles on the fact that “Indians don’t value process”. However, it is actually correct to say *“Indians don’t value processes as much as they value _______” (consistency, respect, history, getting things done quickly, freedom, etc).
(I realize any statement like *this is a huge generalization, and that is a subject we will come back to later.)
In Story #2, we learned that some American parents heartlessly charge rent to adult children living with them. An initial response is “Americans don’t value family”, (more specifically, financially providing for close family members). In reality of course, Americans don’t value providing for family members as much as they value teaching independence.
That is something you could get most American parents to sign on to, but to say they don’t value family at all is a sure way to create distance and misunderstanding.
Understanding value ranking can be an extremely liberating exercise when dealing with people drastically different than you. You will start to see how you actually share the same values, you just rank them in different ways.
In the next post, we’ll look specifically at how to apply this knowledge to cross-cultural situations, and how you can leverage this in the workplace. But I’m sure you are already way ahead of me.
Photo Credit: matthurst on Flickr