A combination of recent decisions and events, both professional and personal, has meant that I’ve kicked off a research piece on the role of “values” just at a time when I’m examining closely what I hold as my core operating values and principles in life. While I’m at the very early stages in trying to make explicit sense of both, I wanted to share a few obvious but under-discussed ideas that I’m intuiting (is that a real word?) and want to explore for actual evidence:
- “Incentives” are not adequate replacements for “values”, for a couple of reasons:
- They are super hard to design well so that you can’t game them (especially incentives you design for yourself!)
- They lead to trade-off and net-benefit thinking on restricted terms, at the expense of more holistic or higher-level considerations, often distorting the system by focusing attention on a part
- They are more often than not short-term (and therefore suboptimal in terms of enduring benefits)
- They are too readily changed and weighted by biases such as recency, saliency etc (which is why advertising works)
- The precise content and formulation of what is regarded as a “good” value or principle is less important than the fact that it is firmly internalized and used to drive behaviour. We should spend far less time debating and choosing values, and far more time making them useful as guard-rails for behaviour or filters for decision-making.
- Principles and values should be super, super open, to maximise cooperation and collaboration. Everyone should know where your guard-rails are and respect that, hopefully minimizing misunderstanding, second-guessing and mis-communication. But these values and principles must be credible – hence realistic values are also required!
Now, I appreciate that “values” is a really amorphous concept in a way, that values are apt to be superceded by emotions and that there might be inefficiency in not being adaptative to changing circumstances. But having seen the danger of indistinct values at a range of levels recently, I want to understand more about what can be practically done to embed positive values at the personal, institutional and macro levels. And I’m not sermonizing here – it would benefit me as much, if not more, than anyone else I know! But if I’m right, there are long-term, higher-level incentives to have strong, clear values. How do we get there?