Understanding Values and Beliefs as Culture Fundamentals

First in a series excerpted from his book FOSTERING CULTURE, A Leader’s Guide to Purposefully Shaping Culture

by Shane Jackson

“Can you tell us a little bit about the culture at Jackson Healthcare?”

This seemingly simple question caught me off guard as I started taking over more leadership responsibilities from my father.  As the face of one of Atlanta’s Best Places to Work for 10 years, I knew I wanted a thoughtful answer.  And more importantly, I knew if I was to foster the Jackson Healthcare culture and preserve it as the company grew, I would need to be able to define it for other leaders throughout the company, who would serve to perpetuate it.

So I began a journey of trying to fully understand culture— first in a general sense, and then more specifically, the culture of Jackson Healthcare. Just as one must understand the elemental concepts of addition and subtraction before grasping the advanced concepts of algebra, I knew I needed to start with the basics. I had to understand what culture is before learning how to foster it within our company.

The first part of my book on the topic wrestles with defining the concepts of culture and its underpinnings.  I found the exercise informative for how I can intentionally guide my company.  I’ve (ruthlessly) summarized some top lines here in hopes any interested readers might also gain value from this effort. My book is available on Amazon as well, with proceeds going to a favorite charity, Predisan Health Ministries.

When trying to understand a culture, it is important to distinguish between WHAT is trying to be accomplished and WHY it is being done.

The questions of why, what, and how are determined by values and beliefs which determine your decisions, actions, and how you see the world. They determine the information that your brain accepts and ignores. Differences in values and beliefs are the reason that two people can view the exact same event and have different impressions of what happened. Values and beliefs are largely unconscious, and yet they exercise tremendous power over us.

VALUES are one of those things that we feel like we understand but are hard to describe.

Ask someone about their values and you are likely to hear things like honesty, integrity, or faith.  But what does it mean to value one of these things?

At its base, value is the worth that we assign to something. It is anything that we hold in high regard because of its importance to us. We value things because they are useful to us in satisfying some need.

I think it is helpful to understand that everyone is seeking a sense of worth in themselves. We value things that provide that sense of worth. This may be a personal trait such as integrity or humor, our friendships or romantic relationships, our wealth or beauty, or any other number of manifestations.

It is also helpful to understand that these values are pretty hard-coded and incredibly difficult to change. Many studies have shown that the core values that are associated with your self- image and drive your behavior are largely set by the time you are seven years old.

Finally, most people do not know what they value, much less why. Either they haven’t explored it deeply enough, or they aren’t being honest with themselves. If you subscribe to the theory that your values and beliefs determine your decisions and actions, then it follows that your decisions and actions will reveal what you truly value.

If someone claims to value honesty, but lies regularly, would you question if they actually value honesty? In fact, they probably do place some value on truthfulness, but there is something else they value more that becomes a priority to them over honesty. For instance, if a person is in a situation where they can improve their popularity by lying, it simply means that they value popularity more than honesty.

As a business leader, it is important to know that those who join your business are doing so to fill a personal need. It is their purpose for being there. However, it is the level of alignment between their personal values and those of the company that determines whether or not they will stay.

Merriam-Webster defines a BELIEF as “a state of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in someone or something.”

I’d add that beliefs are formed because of a conviction that someone or something is true, good, right, or valuable. By implication, one can also hold beliefs that someone or something is false, bad, wrong, or worthless. Beliefs guide our actions, often to the same degree as our values do.

It is important to know your beliefs because, like values, they will drive how you act, make decisions, and see the world. And also like values, they will determine who is ultimately a part of your group or company.

It is also worth understanding that your beliefs shape not only how you see the world, but what you see in the world.

Your brain is constantly reconciling your beliefs about the world with the reality of the world. The stronger you hold the belief, the harder the mind will work to defend it. For a very strongly held belief, the mind will change your perception of the world before it will change the belief.

This desire of the mind to reinforce its beliefs drives personal and professional behavior. If I believe my coworker is incompetent, everything I see him do demonstrates incompetence. If I believe that the product I am selling is the highest quality, I will seek information that confirms that and ignore or discount information about the quality of my competitors.

Our brains constantly seek to reinforce our beliefs by seeking out confirming information and ignoring information that contradicts. Unconsciously, we seek this confirmation in our relationships with the people around us. This determines our friends, who we date and marry, the organizations we affiliate with, and yes, the companies we choose to work for.


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