The idea that business should be value driven is an increasingly influential one, and rightly so. The days when we could be content to make profit our only value, and when we could delude ourselves that that in itself was not a value judgment, are far behind us, and values are now being used to anchor leadership in all sorts of businesses.
Making the best use of this, like any insight, involves understanding why it works. Fortunately management is a field that draws on many disciplines, and in this case we can learn much from French philosopher Albert Camus.
In his 1951 book The Rebel, Camus discussed at length how values shape us, our behavior and society, and also the nature of values. Drawing upon Andre Lalande’s Vocabulaire Philosophique, Camus said that values ‘represent a transition from facts to rights, from what is desired to what is desirable’.
In other words, values let us step away from the world as it is and demand that it be better, to leave behind the material and mundane, saying that there is something more to us than just flesh and bones, or in the context of work more than the money we are paid.
This idea that we are something more, and that the world can be something more, is hugely appealing and gives values much of their power to motivate.
Given the book’s title, it’s no surprise that in The Rebel, Camus concerned himself with the act of rebellion. But he saw it not just as a political act, or a cultural one as it would become in the following decade of rock’n’roll. For Camus, rebellion was the act of moving from just believing in ideals to asserting them. Having recognized our values, rebellion is us putting them into action.
This is part of why asserting our values can be so liberating and energizing, even in the workplace. Acting on values is a moment when, instead of bowing to peer pressure and the dominant systems, we set our own path and become rebels with a cause.
This might make it sound like values are something that set us against each other in acts of conflict and revolt. But far from it. Camus saw that the recognition of values and the act of rebellion were based upon seeing something worthwhile in our shared humanity, something that made the risks inherent in rebellion worthwhile.
By working towards a set of values we affirm something deeper in ourselves, the people we work with and the people we work for. We act out a belief that we are more than just cogs in a commercial machine. That affirmation makes us feel more connected to one another, more important to the world.
The act of rebellion, of asserting values, is all about finding something that we share.
It means that any set of values should be rooted in an ideal of how we believe the world should work, guiding us in moving the world towards that. This will always be more inspiring than something compromised and broken.
It means that we need to provide an opportunity for employees to act on those values, to back them up when that goes against common behavior, to support them in feeling like rebels.
It means that values are something we should share, and should celebrate sharing, because they are what we see as best in the people around us, and can be hugely unifying.
Our values should say to the world, as Camus put it, ‘this is how I want things to be’.