Posted by: Nicholas Davis | June 10, 2009

On Values and Principles

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Now, I appreciate that “values” is a really amorphous concept in a way, that values are apt to be superceded by emotions and that there might be inefficiency in not being adaptative to changing circumstances.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?


  1. I haven’t thought about this enough to have a good answer right now I’m afraid. However, I wanted to flag this year’s BBC Reith lectures which are going to be related to this topic – the role of morality in economics and specifically in markets.

    • Thanks Dan, will check them out. Good tip.

  2. An important post. Values are all that matter and a cultures wealth can be measured by them. A CEO friend of mine once said corporate culture is what happens when the boss is out of the office. Unfortunately, the most recent “values” were based on “what can we get away with” legally, regulatory etc. Instead of what is the right thing to do. The Book trust is very interesting on this. And a basic regression at shows how low trust or corrupt cultures don’t really develop on the human development index very far.

    • Nick,

      Great insight on “what can we get away with” – we need to be really carefully not to think along these lines and justify the line of thinking by reference to . Thanks also for the data.

      Interestingly, along the same lines and supported by values, someone at work sent this to me today, from Jo Owen:

      “Bosses know, from their own experience, that cock-ups happen. Most (but not all) bosses are pretty forgiving of mistakes.
      But there are some things that they find hard to forgive. Here are the four greatest CLMs (career limiting moves) which team members can make:
      1. Disloyalty. In the words of one boss, “Many sins are forgivable, but disloyalty is not one of them.” Disloyalty is not just about plotting the overthrow of the boss. It includes bad mouthing the boss by the coffee machine, failing to support the boss when the going gets tough or acting in a less than committed manner. Disloyalty means that the basic bond of trust between boss and team is broken. Once the trust goes, the team member soon follows.
      2. Surprises. If in doubt, over communicate. If the boss finds out the bad news from another department, you are dead meat. You have just made the boss look like (s)he is out of control and does not know what is happening in the team. You have also left it too late to fix the problem in private, and you have now become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
      3. Excuses. Bosses want solutions and actions, not excuses. Ditch the “I said he said she said so I said…” discussion. Focus on offering the boss a way forward rather than looking backwards and trying to spread the blame.
      4. Negativity. This is mainly about attitude. If you are not positive and enthusiastic and energetic, no-one else will be positive, enthusiastic and energetic on your behalf. Bosses have enough problems without you adding to them. ”

      Good pointers, I’d say. Now to make sure I don’t make these CLMs in the future!

  3. Nice post! I think you should give examples of values and incentives, not necessarily personal and fine with key words, to show how you are thinking about them differently as well as for each of the bullet points you give. They are really interesting, but I find they don’t mean much to me in the absence of context.

    I also don’t particularly think values can be overcome by emotions, them being more engrained at least on a personal level, unless it is someone else’s emotions compromising your values, or unless you are lead astray by a different incentive.

    • Thanks Bella!

      I was thinking of values like loyalty, transparency, openness, fairness etc, but I think the list of values is less important than how you get them to be key reference points in our lives. So I guess my point is, you can undermine values (social, professional, personal) by trying to link them to incentives, and you should be clear with others about the priority of the values you DO hold, so that miscommunication is minimized. E.g. the time I nominated one friend for SRC because he asked, and got in major trouble with another friend for being disloyal – I had no idea that was a big issue, and knowing the boundaries would have been useful (although perhaps not avoidable in that example… 🙂 ).

      The challenge of keeping values intact when faced with emotions is a big one I think – passion, anger, fear can all make people do things they regret afterwards.

      This is probably exacerbated by the “boiling frog” aspect – the gradual erosion of values by baby steps that means that you can always justify the next move… until you find yourself committing something that is clearly completely against even your self-professed values. As Darko would point out (but put it far better than I can) there is evidence that we instinctively seek consistency between our actions and our thoughts, so we will often seek to justify behaviour that transgresses values, and hence be more likely to repeat the behaviour under a different guise (to prove we WEREN’T bad people), or alter the values to match.

      Plenty of time to chat about this in the car this weekend! 🙂

  4. You may be interested to look into social science research based on “high trust” cultures, there has been a lot of work done on organizational behaviour and effectiveness relative to high trust environments.

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