I’ve run this simulation dozens of times. Imagine a room full of some of the most social justice, human-centered, empathically trained individuals you’ve ever met. We break in to small groups and they are told that “Congratulations! Based on your past record of commitment to justice and equity, you have been hand selected to help the UN design a pilot of the ideal society as a model for the future of nation building.”
Each group gets a set of shared instructions, with team goals and a budget. Each individual also gets their own personal instructions based on their character, as well as a line-item budget specific to their character’s expertise that tells them information that their counterparts don’t know, for example “if you build X roads, 30% of the people will have easy access to hospitals; if you build Y roads, 100% will”. Each character is a generally upstanding person who has done laudable things, but, as in real life, they also each have their own personal agenda.
The groups get a number of hours to design this society, but almost immediately, the conversation becomes a negotiation about budget-allocation and positioning to achieve their personal agenda items. Only once in all the times that I’ve run this, has a group stopped at the beginning and said, “we should come up with a name and vision for our country, agree on our shared values, and develop this new society with an eye always towards those principles first.”
During the debrief, the realization of how far the participants were from espousing their values in an environment that was meant to be values-driven is always a formative and eye-opening experience. I would know, I based the above simulation off of a similar, but not so touchy-feely, Harvard Business School simulation called Mt. Everest, which I won handily at the expense of my teammates, only to feel a lot of shame about it afterwards.
It’s easy to speak aspirationally about the things we say we believe in – inclusivity, empathy, (insert whatever value you want here) – but the chasm between what we say and what we do is often wide. One of the hardest things to do in life is actually live our values.
If my first anecdote wasn’t convincing enough, the famous “From Jerusalem to Jericho” study spells out our cognitive dissonance more scientifically. Psychologists asked 67 seminary students studying to be priests (so, presumably, a group of people who are values driven), to deliver a talk on the Good Samaritan, a parable from the Bible about helping others in need. Students were randomly assigned into two groups, hurried and unhurried. The “hurried” students were told they were running late for the talk, while the “unhurried” were told that they had time to get there. Along the students’ way to give their talk, unbeknownst to them, the researchers placed a man who is clearly in distress and in need of help. For the group of students who were in a hurry, only 10% stopped to help the man, in the unhurried group, 63%. If we live our values only when it’s easy and convenient, are those truly our values? And what does it actually mean to live a values-driven life?
This phenomenon doesn’t only happen on the individual level, it also exists on the institutional level. One of my favorite Stanford Social Innovation Review pieces, “Non-Profit Paradox,” articulates what so many of us who have worked in the non-profit world have experienced – that non-profits often internally perpetuate the social ills they are externally trying to address. For instance, the health organization that offers it’s employees terrible health coverage; the domestic violence organization that has an abusive work environment for it’s employees; the organization that promotes inclusivity but has alienating in-group cliques to get promoted.
Principles Meet Practice
So how do we reconcile our cognitive dissonance? I think the first thing we need to admit is that living our values is hard. I talk about a lot of different values in my writing, so I’ll use the example of curiosity and openness, which I’ve explored extensively. I would like to imagine that when approached with someone I disagree with, my immediate inclination, based on my values of curiosity and openness, would be to be exactly that – to be open and curious with them. But the truth is, that my immediate inclination is still to want to retreat to my comfort zone of “I’m right and you’re wrong/evil/stupid.” I try very hard to catch myself, and say “hey, Jenn, this is your time to practice your values,” and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I catch myself, but still have a hard time being open and curious the way I would like to be.
You’ve probably seen the person who says that they value getting different voices at the table only to then make unilateral decisions, or the person who says they value forgiveness but can’t let things go. They all probably do truly believe that these are things they value, and would be just as surprised as the participants from the earlier simulation example, to be told that they weren’t, in fact, living their stated values.
Which leads me to the second thing we need to admit, which is that we (yes, you, too) don’t always live our values. We can all point to times in our lives where we have talked about something that is important to us, but when it comes down to making a decision, we don’t actually use our values as our guide.
But when we are beating ourselves up about not always living our values, the third thing we need to admit is that the truth is, living your values can be exhausting. It takes an acute awareness and a policing-like intentionality, and this is because living our values doesn’t come naturally. Our knee jerk reaction is many times not in line with the larger things we believe about how we should be and how the world should be. That is because our default reaction is often going to be the easiest or most painless way to get something done, while our values-driven decision often ends up being the hardest thing that takes the most amount of work. So it will always be easier to say, and so much harder to do. But we all know how “do as I say, not as I do” ends – with a great chasm between where we want to be and where we actually are.
In order to be an effective leader, working on bridging this chasm is important in order to really know who and how you are in the world. Defining what your values are and being able to notice when you are living those values and when you aren’t gives you a power in awareness to actually work on being the leader that you aspire to be. Working on bridging this chasm in ourselves is also important because we are always modeling. The behaviors we exhibit are seen and copied. In writing and in acting, there’s the old adage “show, don’t tell.” I think that’s true in leadership too. We all admire the general who is on the frontlines with his troops or the boss who is willing to take on a portion of the busy work because they’ve said everyone has to do their fair share. They are models for us, and we in turn, model them, and others notice, and that helps good, but hard, behaviors continue.
So, when you’re answering the question “what type of person do I want to be?” stating answer isn’t enough, you need to create a plan for how you are actually going to live it, otherwise, as you can see, it’s very easy not to.