You need to recognize that value systems are fundamental to understanding how culture expresses itself. Values often serve as principles that guide people in their behaviors and actions. Our values, ideally, should match up with what we say we will do, and our values are most evident in symbolic forms. Consider, for example, a picture of the American flag. If you were an American, what words do the pictures evoke for you? Freedom, liberty, America, united, independence, democracy, or patriotism, perhaps?
What if a Nazi symbol were painted on the American flag? How would that make you feel? Disgusted, sad, angry, revengeful? What would the desecration of the flag symbolize? Hatred, terrorism, nationalism? What about freedom of speech? Symbols like the American flag evoke strong emotions for people, and when the symbol is desecrated, it can feel like a personal attack on the person’s value system and their beliefs about the world. It feels out of alignment from what we believe to be true—what we see as our reality of the world. This is because our values and beliefs are rooted in stories we tell ourselves over and over again.
Joseph Campbell 1 noted that stories and myths are our psychological maps of the world. We use them to guide our thinking and behaviors, and when we do not like a story or it does not align with stories we know, we discard them. We learn through culture to create a story about the story. Campbell said that when we can unravel our stories, we begin to see the meaning we have placed on them and the impact they have on our lives. The case study that follows illustrates this notion of values:
James works full-time managing a fast food restaurant chain. Working extra hours every week helps him bring home more income for his family of four. He will do whatever it takes to help take care of his family.
Ana is also a manager in the same restaurant. She works her forty hours a week and then goes home to her family of three. She doesn’t want to work more hours because she wants to spend as much time with her family as possible.
How does James’s perspective of family differ from Ana’s? What assumptions does each have about the value of family? What might be the stories they are creating for themselves that shape their values of family? Both individuals have the same value of family, but their values are expressed differently through their behaviors. A value such as family can be expressed and thought of differently from one culture to the next or from one person to the next. James believes that working hard illustrates his value of family, while Ana believes that spending time with her family demonstrates her commitment to the value. These assumptions are not expressed verbally, and, in some cases, the assumptions can be unconscious. Notice how, in the following scenario, James’ assumptions are challenged:
Both Ana and James receive a bonus for their work. James finds out that Ana has received the same percentage of bonus that he has. He’s quite upset because he knows that he works more than she does and sometimes covers her shifts when she has family emergencies or is late because of day care issues. He thinks to himself, “How could she get the same bonus as me? She doesn’t even work that hard and she comes in late to her shift using excuses that her day care didn’t show up again.”
In the case study, the assumptions that James has of Ana (Ana makes excuses; Ana comes in late; or Ana does not work hard) can become a problem and conflict between the two. His assumptions are based on his own definition of family, which could consist of any of the following: be responsible, show up on time, or working hard can bring in more money for the family. His assumptions are challenged when Ana receives the same bonus for a perceived different level of commitment.
As a leader, it is important to understand and identify to employees that most of us share the same values. It is our interpretation and expression of the values that creates the conflict. Many people justify bias and discrimination on the grounds of “values” without realizing that it is not the values themselves but the difference between our expression and interpretation and that of those we come into conflict with.