Applying Values awareness to deliver effective change

This article is about one possible definition of Values and describes what I see as the use that this definition has in approaching the work of the UK Values Alliance.   If we want more than a loose and general campaigning approach to societal and organisational change, we benefit from knowing the mechanisms involved and having toolkits that will enable us to be most effective.

What Values are needed and how do we promote them?

When the UKVA was first launched, we saw the results of the UK Values survey with their visible gap between the Values that people aspire to and the ones that they perceive in our national culture, many of which are defined in CTT as “entropic”.   The gap, our UK Values Alliance conversations, my engagement with the Conscious Capitalism chapter and the connection between UK Values Alliance and Action for Happiness all represent a shared desire to improve the current reality.  What is involved in bringing about a Values-based shift in our organisations and our society?  How do we know what is needed?  We can justify the benefits of a Values-led organisation, but what actions are required to bring about the changes we desire?

It is tempting to assume that we know which Values will bring human happiness and that people will agree what is required, where and when.  It is also tempting to believe that if we simply present the reasons why these Values are “better”, that we can persuade people to shift to more healthy, less entropic ways of being.  My presentations have attempted to explain why this approach has limited effectiveness, to describe what is needed in order to support healthy and sustainable change and how to work towards it.  The remainder of this article will present the core elements underlying those presentations.

Values as evolutionary adaptations

I work primarily out of Spiral Dynamics integral theory, which views Values as adaptive cultural codes that enable societies to thrive in the conditions that surround them.  Within a modern city, the power hierarchies of inner-city gang culture impose significantly different demands on those youths and call forth different codes than those which are present in the church groups, police and social workers who are attempting to support or manage them.  Each of their Values systems have a reason for existence.

If it were possible to persuade street-gang members and criminals that they would be better off with more law-abiding choices, we would have stamped out crime long ago.  There is a reason why entropic Values persist.  They represent what some people experience as their best available option.  Even an entropic value like bureaucracy is an unhealthy extreme of an otherwise positive Value – that of order and process.  Those who maintain bureaucracies cannot change until they know that doing so will not bring chaos and disorder.  So what does it take for people to move out of Values that are limiting, or worse?

Since I cannot present the deep underlying system here I can only refer you to those fuller presentations, which place our current societal challenges in the context of an evolutionary process by which humans have progressed from bushmen-style bands to complex societies where large numbers live in proximity and engage together in a global context.  The challenges that we see revealed in the UK survey are the creative tensions out of which the next evolutionary steps will emerge.

Choices, polarities and the integrity of tension

Perhaps if we were not so wedded to our own points of view, to our own conclusions about which Values are “right” and which are “wrong” it would be self-evident that all the Values people hold must have their roots in something that they perceive to be of benefit to them.  Why else would they exist?  Political debate typically consists of people presenting why their Values are the more important ones, and failing to convince anybody of which to choose between, for example, money or people, individual freedom or collective compliance, material comfort or human happiness?

As Barry Johnson so elegantly presents in “Polarity Management”, these binary questions are typically as helpful as asking you whether breathing out is better than breathing in and expecting you to choose.  Societal choices exist in a dynamic and shifting tension, and as Buckminster Fuller said, “Tension is the greatest integrity”.  Our task is to balance multiple needs.  John Mackey makes a similar point in “Conscious Capitalism”.  It is about people AND profit, customers AND shareholders, suppliers AND employees.  The minute that we try to make one supreme, we have lost the plot.  Politically we swing between alternating governments which fail to rise above their own polarised priorities and which mainly succeed in pushing the pendulum back and forth, destroying half of the work done by their predecessors.  You can find the same dynamic in corporations which switch CEO’s, one time with a radical innovator, the next with a systematic creator of stability.

What does it take to create a more intelligent and balanced societal change dynamic than this?  The alternate word that SD uses for Values is “Vmemes”, memes being the units of cultural encoding that Richard Dawkins has named as the equivalent of the biological “gene”.   The adaptive nature of the Vmeme resides in our potential to shift in order to enhance our ability to thrive.   Richard Barrett uses a similar metaphor when he identifies some of the core strands, particularly the need to rise above cultural (DNA) fears.  I have argued similarly in my book “Future Money” about the way that fear, greed and the desire for power have played out in our relationship to finance.  These emotional drivers affect our Values and thereby our personal behaviour.  They impact the collective cultural mindset and they become embedded in the systems that we create.  Systems embody and structuralise the mindsets and Values from which they were birthed.

Developing multiple intelligences

For this reason, John Mackey states explicitly that the development of successful (Conscious) Capitalist systems and organisations requires a blend of intelligences.  We need the individual physical intelligence and intellectual intelligence (healthy mind in healthy body).  We then need to add emotional intelligence, spiritual intelligence and systems intelligence.

I support Richard Barrett’s contention that change only happens through people; this is our starting point.  Dr. Clare Graves, the progenitor of the theory that became Spiral Dynamics, would have said the same.  But we also know that people dislike being changed.  If they change, they do so because they have found some inner recognition that it works for them.  Graves’ theory tells us that people only change when it improves their adaptation to their perceived life conditions.  Implicit in those last three words is the possibility that perceptions might change.  But the core of the theory is that the life conditions are critical.  Perceptions will only change sustainably if they bring the individual into closer adaptive alignment with the reality of their life conditions.  Otherwise tension will increase and the life conditions will pull the individual back into adaptive harmony.

So here we have the key to why corporate culture-change programmes often fail.  Well-intentioned HR functions instigate training programmes and possibly modify reward systems in the expectation that this will eliminate undesired elements – bullying, lack of co-operation, blame culture, poor customer relations or whatever.  But they leave the systemic aspects in place.  The life conditions of managerial pressures, main board targets, processes and policies, computer systems and other cultural constraints remain, rapidly exercising their gravitational pull on individual Values.  People revert to doing what they did before, because that is the best way to thrive in the system.

Delivering sustainable change

In presenting the Spiral Dynamics approach to change it was my wish to show that this can be supported effectively, but that doing so means working with all aspects of the system.  It means understanding the various levels of belief systems and Values that are in operation and observing how they drive the adaptive Values choices that are possible or called for.  It means being able to see where the tensions are arising and knowing what specifically will unlock those tension to allow the new life of the organisation to emerge.  It means being able to see which individuals may be holding those tension points and moving them or others in order to produce greater alignment.

It may mean shifting the points of leadership – answering the question WHO is needed to lead WHICH kinds of people to do WHAT in WHICH environments?  It may mean introducing additional leaders (at whatever level and strategic point) who already embody the knowledge or ways of being that are needed, and can model it for others. It may mean altering what is measured so that the organisation is responsive to the right shifts in outcomes.  It may mean realigning processes and altering systems so that they support the changes that need to be achieved.  And then it means training people so that they know what is being asked of them and have the skill-sets to step up to those requirements.  Sometimes it means giving people the authority and flexibility to do what they always knew was needed but were prevented by systems, processes or rules from doing, often to the detriment of their ability to give customer satisfaction.

So what is the equivalent of this at societal level?  In principle it is the same – it requires similar shifts in systems, processes, leadership and authority.  It is certainly arguable that when a welfare state was created which was unable to balance the desire to give a safety-net to the weak with the originally intended incentive to propel those who could to do more for themselves, the UK instigated a culture of disempowerment and dependence that affected generations and that we are finding hard to reverse.  The problem became systemic and the solutions must include the systemic ones.  However societal change also requires a shift in mind-sets, and the training that is possible in an organisation is not possible at the societal level.  Campaigns are needed and it requires considerable ingenuity and effort to influence mind-sets on the large scale.  It is essential that messages are constructed in such a way that they meet the full bandwidth of prevailing Values systems in the target audience.  Every one of these systems has their hot and cold buttons, and when these are known such influencing processes become possible.  Without them you turn one group on to change at the expense of losing another.

These are challenging times, but equally they are exciting ones.  The volatility and fragility to be seen in our current life conditions are also bringing openings and highlighting needs.  Many of us have been coaching leaders to be more equipped for those openings.  In the next phase we will need to do more to create the organisations they are ready to lead. We have witnessed several years of hunkering down, playing wait-and-see or trying to revert to earlier ways that were once thought to work, possibly with rose-tinted hindsight.  Hunkering down also gathers energy for the next push and I see signs that energy is waiting for release.  Our ability to work with that pent-up energy and to assist it into constructive forms of expression will be crucial since it can easily turn destructive.  Am I alone in thinking that this is the work that I and we have been preparing for a long time to do?   My presentations described the kinds of tools that we will need if we are to be effective.  I hope that you will find them valuable too in increasing the range of what is possible and achievable.

Jon Freeman

“The Science of Possibility:  Patterns of Connected Consciousness” is now available via
The links to Jon Freeman’s webinars on Spiral Dynamics, Parts I and II, are noted below

Part I :
Part II:  Toolkits for Values-based Change

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