There is much talk around the idea of values.  In a recent Forge article, Darius Foroux wrote “…what forms the foundation of our character, are our values.  Values are our fundamental beliefs, informing our thoughts, words, and actions.”

He then goes on to list the eight core values that govern his life – Authenticity, Truthfulness, Joyfulness, Curiosity, Responsibility, Love, Fearlessness and Loyalty.  Certainly, admirable values to live by.

Organizations also work to establish the values they will live by.  Typical values include Respect, Authenticity, Team Collaboration, Customer First, Integrity, and so on.

Context drives behavior not values

There is a difference between values and Context.  Values are the attributes we choose to guide our lives.  They are products of a conscious process. Values tend to be aspirational.  We strive to live but them, to make choices based on our values.  However, we often find our behaviors fall outside the boundaries of these values.

That is because the choices we make in any given moment are  driven by our underlying Context not out values.

Our Context is who we are being in the moment we make the choice.  If I hold the values of respect and kindness yet experience a threat and feel defensive in a certain situation, I will, most likely, lash out in ways that are contrary to my values.

Values are a process of the mind, Context is a process of the body.  Context is the set of energy patterns stored in our bodies formed by the thousands of experiences we have over the course of our lives.  Habits are a form of Context patterns.  Knee-jerk reactions to various situations are also manifestations of Context patterns.

Context overrides values

I was coaching the VP of Human Resources for a medium sized electronics firm. She had concerns about one of the division presidents.  Yet, her reaction to how he responded to a certain situation was troubling.  The reaction was way out of proportion to the situation at hand.  Two of her core values were to support others and treat others with kindness.  Yet her response was anything but.

Talking through it, she discovered that it wasn’t the president of the division that she was reacting to.  Rather, the situation had enough similarities to conflicts she had with her brother growing up.

Her deeper Context projected her inner patterns onto the president.  The Context pattern of “I have to protect my brother” took over and guided her behavior and choices. Choices that were inappropriate for this situation.

Organizations are driven by Context

The same is true for the collective behavior of an organization.  The underlying Context of the organization will guide the behaviors of the employees regardless of what is written on the walls as the organization values.

An organization that has collaboration and teamwork as its values but people operate in silos, the underlying Context is success is measured by individual performance, not the team or organization.  If an organization states that people are their most important asset and cuts training budgets and layoffs to cut expenses, the underlying Context is people are fungible assets and can easily be replaced.

Values are extremely important and worthy of making them explicit for any individual or organization.  Yet it is important to remember that they are mostly aspirational until the underlying Context matches the stated values.

Values are what we want to live by, Context is who we are being which defines what we will do.

Only when you align your Context with your values will be living a truly authentic life and be the type of organization you want to be.