Understanding The Deep Value of Values

Four years ago…in the Tuscan Countryside

Lately, I’ve been trying to explain the core concepts of this blog in more easily understood terms.

One of the most important concepts I talk about are the v-Memes from Spiral Dynamics, which I’ve started referring to as Value Sets. I think I’ve seen the master himself, Don Beck, refer to them as value sets as well, so I’m happy to attribute the term to him.

People see the ‘meme’ word, and basically can’t get a picture of Kermit staring out a window in the rain out of their head. Memes are a whole lot more than this, but just so everyone’s clear on all this, this is what MOST people think about when I say ‘meme’.

I’ve started using the term Value Set to characterize a list of values associated with a given social structure. Values are drivers of behaviors, and that’s super-important to understand. They are not the behaviors themselves. Individual behaviors, because they arise from a combination of both values and context — cannot always be attributed to a specific Value Set. Different contexts and different values can lead to identical behavior — which means that behavior is not a very good indicator of deep motivation. Think about it this way — there’s a hundred different reasons why you’d give someone a gift, from the deeply charitable to the positively Machiavellian. And every different reason might be driven by a different set of values.

A simple way to understand this — a given value or values are a person’s internal/emergent driver to a given behavior. Context is the external set of conditions that drive a person/agent to do something.

OK — so here we go. A Value Set is a coherent group of values that work together to create a social structure. Since we’ve been bathed in Authoritarian sadness lately, it’s always easy to come up with examples in that space. Two values that create the social structure —

  • The person above you is “righter” than you
  • If there is a conflict, you must defer to the information above you

Consider the situation of a military unit in battle. Your commanding officer orders you to charge up a hill. You say “hey, that’s gonna get me killed!” He says “No, it won’t. You’ll save the day!” Because you’re in a Authority-driven hierarchy, you charge up the hill, regardless of the data stream your own eyes and ears are taking in. The social structure counts on the value of him having a greater spatial and temporal range than you, and therefore more accurate information. It also counts on your deference to authority. You have to suppress your obvious fear and, well, run up the hill. Even if potentially it could kill you.

Coherence is what makes values powerful. When values are interlocking, the result is emergent social behavior, which manifests itself in some sort of social structure. If you believe, for example, that you can score people’s performance through some algorithm, it should be no surprise that you end up with some version of a hierarchy that emerges from the application of a scoring metric and a set of accompanying rules. My son’s tennis team embodied this perfectly. There were a set of rules regarding activities that added or subtracted points that determined order of play, or seeding — definite status activity.

These value sets generate greater complexity of potential outcomes as individuals in a given social structure evolve. Evolution, and its primary vectors — training and experience — mean more independence and awareness. The combination of these creates agency in the people in the social structure — the ability to act thoughtfully and consider more factors over an increasing span of time and space.

And now — agency, and its amount, feeds back into social structure, in how it must function in order to create both information coherence and coordinated action.

And finally, empathy itself is directly related to the value set in the operative social structure. Should information move up and down the chain-of-command? Is the only thing you need to be interested in is someone else’s pain? How about following along with the exercises? Value sets are going to cue you in on the work you need to do on developing empathy with, and within your team.

The theory I use for categorization of Value Sets is called Spiral Dynamics, invented by Clare Graves and his student Don Beck, and augmented by others — notably Chris Cowan, who was Beck’s partner for many years. Spiral Dynamics recognizes eight canonical Value Sets, each nested evolutionarily, increasing in complexity, as one moves up the Spiral.

OK — let’s back up and review.

  1. Value sets are groups of values that generate social structures. Canonical value sets are given by theories like Spiral Dynamics, that recognize eight different types.
  2. Social structures are stable human network configurations that create relationships so humans can find coherent meaning and coordinate action.
  3. The type of supportable social structure is dependent on a.) the agency of the individual (whether they act independently at the scale demanded) and the level of empathy between those individuals. This varies — ever heard the expression ‘that person doesn’t have the ability to be friends’?

Value sets also work outside our group, instead of just internally. Just as shared value sets coordinate actions and provide information coherence inside a closed group of individuals, those powerful signals DO NOT STOP at the group boundary. Similar abilities for understanding and coordination are created between groups if they share the same value set. Or between individuals from different groups. When you meet someone that shares your value set, it is far easier to develop a friendship. Misunderstandings fall away. Gauging intent becomes automatic.

Value sets also serve as containers for generating shared, specific knowledge. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to realize the incredible power of shared, coherent value sets. Why? Because I forget specific things. I used to have a near-photographic memory (I could replay scenes from my life in my head, and never forgot appointments and such) and actually developed quite a few bad habits around that capability. Why write things down when I could just push the button in my brain that would deliver recall?

What value sets do, and the social structures that evolve from them, as covered extensively on this blog in other places, is create similarly configured KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURES in the brain. And here’s the thing — those knowledge structures act like multi-faceted, often fractal containers/spreadsheets. All a person has to do to regenerate forgotten knowledge is take a couple of pieces, drop it into the container/spreadsheet, and then the value set supplies the connecting information to regenerate the surface-level knowledge that we need to navigate our world.

On a more immediate action level, we do this all the time on a superficial level with our good friends. If it’s a Friday night after work, all you have to do is say “Weekend beers — 5:30?” and everyone ends up at the same watering hole with a beer in their hand. Value sets are more meta- and do functionally the same thing with larger mental models and worldviews. A couple of points (“Brexit, anyone?”) and you know you have intellectual coherence, safety, and a path forward — which in the case of Brexit, may well lead you to the pub!

What’s interesting is that such value set matching works even between adversaries. I’ve written previously about Trump and Kim Jung-Oon (or any other dictator out there.) Trump and Kim, even if they have conflicting superficial positions, deeply understand what is important to both. Trump’s quotes on the status of North Korea, a country that diverts so much money to its military that its people undergo regular famines. “He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the strong head, don’t let anyone think anything different,” Trump said during an interview on Fox & Friends. “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” (Trump later walked back his comment, attributing them to sarcasm. You decide.)

This matters more and more as complexity increases. Complexity means that there are more colors, details, actions and such to remember. Matching value sets trigger shared meaning of limited signals, increasing the likelihood that two people communicating with each other will capture the essence of each other’s circumstance. That limits misunderstanding, and once again, enables coherent and coordinated activity.

Consider you’re attempting to hit a set of production goals across a larger organization. The goals have been well-defined by leadership, and you’ve developed good relationships, where you deeply understand the perspectives of other co-leaders who may be upstream or downstream from your operation. Because you all share a performance value set, you’re confident that those players are also working to hit shared targets. Those shared targets, likely enshrined as metrics, mean all you really need to know you can communicate in a couple of numbers across the system boundary of your unit.

But it’s more than that. If you know them, you’ll also be familiar with their lower-level scaffolding value sets. You have some level of trust that besides wanting to hit the same goals, you also are following the same ethical and safety rules (Legalistic/Absolutistic value set one level below,) there’s appropriate authority distributed through the organization to get things done (Authority value set,) and you all have a larger scale identity (Tribal/Magical) on what it means to be part of your organization. Like a complex watch meshing gears, it will all work together. And maybe, all that is required is a couple of cues passed across your unit’s boundary upstream and downstream.

Value Set Conflict is a big deal — when we attempt to work with others with whom we don’t share the same Value Set. I’ve written a whole sequence of posts starting here on what happens when value sets/v-Memes collide. So I won’t repeat that information — just remember that v-Meme and value set mean the same thing!

In conclusion — here are the basics for you, moving forward.

Understand the different Value Sets and what they entail.

Think about how those values generate social structure, and through that, knowledge structure.

Think about how limited data will activate coordinated activity for people with the same Value Set.

Realize the work that must be done to elevate the empathy in your people inside that social structure so they can play to more evolved Value Sets.

9 thoughts on “Understanding The Deep Value of Values

  1. Out of curiosity, have you looked into related integral thinking such as that of Jean Gebser? I’ve been reading Jeremy Johnson’s Seeing Through the World. It’s a good intro to Gebser’s thought. It’s different in some ways from Spiral Dynamics, but it has some points of similarity.


    1. Gebser’s thought might or might not appeal to you. It’s more philosophical, but because of that it has great depth. His view offers much insight about why the world is the way it is right now and what it means.


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