Your values are like cake: You can’t eat it and have it too

values

Of course, the quote is more popularly known as ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’ — which, of course, you can. History shows sources for both, and in the context of values, the reverse order ‘you can’t eat your cake and have it too’ makes sense. Because holding your values, like having and eating cake, is a choice between actions and outcomes.

What happens when our values (our non-negotiables) get eaten by the things we do or want to do? It’s a question bought into the light by recent allegations against Woolworths Group-owned ALH and their operations of pokies in hotels across the country.

I was asked to comment on the likelihood that the continuing ALH scandal would damage Woolworths Supermarkets and their ‘fresh food’ stance. The short answer is it’s unlikely — you can read the whole article here (paywall).

But the discomfort some people may feel about their shopping habits, and the effect of actions by the company who owns the stores where they shop, raises a broader question of values. Or in other words, how we hold them and what role they play in our actions and decisions.

People and organisations regularly run into the tension between what they believe and how they do things. One example is the person who talks about respect and is late for every meeting. Or the shopper who claims to care about fair wages and buys the cheapest products without thinking about how they are made. Or the shareholder who wants to protect the environment and then votes to support a measure that will generate profits and pollution in equal measure.

When values are non-negotiable, they become the bedrock for who we are and how we decide things. And when people’s values are real, they often find them inconvenient, a disadvantage and absent of reward.

Let’s start with inconvenience. In my article on Woolworths, I suggested most shoppers will choose the convenience of the closest supermarket to grab a few groceries, no matter how they feel about gambling. They may say they believe pokies are wrong and disproportionately impact vulnerable people, but when push comes to dinnertime and the next groceries are an extra kilometre or two away, dinner wins over the inconvenience of the extra distance.

And disadvantage comes with the territory, because everything is a trade-off. Thinking back to the supermarket trip, shopping at Woolworths means you get rewards either from them or through some other program. So not buying there means you forgo the future benefit.

I’m not judging what you do or don’t hold as values. Still, too often, we don’t consider if that future is a worthwhile trade for our sense of who we are and what we believe.

Picking up the idea of benefit, why do we think values should carry an obvious reward? Outside the feeling you get living according to what you believe, there is no guarantee of a reward for holding firm your values. Indeed, from ancient time onwards, stories abound of the cost.

Stoic philosopher Seneca once provided advice to Emperor Nero. He went into retirement when the true character of Nero’s violent reign became evident and subsequently accepted a sentence to commit suicide after a coup against the emperor failed.

Today values rarely exact so high a cost. But they aren’t free. It’s worth remembering every decision is a choice to either hold your values or not. Or as Marcus Aurelius, another stoic philosopher, famously quipped 2000 years ago: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”

See you next week.

NOW READ: An organisation’s core values erode with time

NOW READ: Values are a line in the sand

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