Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Values are Ends, Not Means

Last month, Joel Gascoigne wrote about some of the decisions that he and the team had made at Buffer.  One of the things that he struggled with was how to correlate choices with success:

"If we don’t attribute our choices to success or failure, how can we assess if we are on the right track? I think in this case, the point is that our values should hold true in either case, and we should stand by them.

This is the approach we have started to take at Buffer with our cultural values such as Happiness and Positivity or Defaulting to Transparency. I can’t say that creating a company where everyone is happy is something that will make us more successful, and I can’t say that being fully transparent about revenues, user numbers, salaries and other details helps us grow faster than other companies. These are simply values we have chosen to live by."
I often struggle with the same challenge.  Humans are pattern-seekers, and we are apt to tell stories that explain what we see, even if what we see is the product of sheer chance.

Far too often, we try to justify our choices (and the values behind them) on utilitarian grounds.  Happiness is good because it makes people more productive.  Engagement is good because it reduces turnover.

Joel's insight is that we need the courage to treat our values as an ends, not a means.  Values are what you choose to live by, simply because you believe they are right, not because you believe they impact the bottom line (though hopefully you don't pay too much of a "righteousness tax" to live up to your values).

Once you try to justify values with utility, you leave yourself open to the pressure to abandon them when the pattern changes.  One of the reasons that Tony Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon is that some of his investors were spooked by the 2008 crisis, and demanded that he "get serious" and dismantle the culture he had so lovingly built.  They saw his values as a means, or even worse, as a luxury, rather than as a fundamental part of the company.

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