Values and ethos has been a major focus over the last week as we spend significant time discussing working arrangements with volunteers and potential partnership organisations.
Like all other organisations, we have a set of policies which explain our approaches for dealing with standard issues. However many policies an organisation has, and however detailed the policies are, they can never deal with every possible eventuality. So, rather than trying to draw up detailed rules for dealing with every situation, we strive to develop solutions focused thinking amongst staff and volunteers.
At the heart of solutions focused thinking are our values. We believe that volunteers and staff who take on board our values, will then be empowered to deal with new and unexpected issues. So, promoting our values and being clear about the values of those we work with is very important to us.
In the modern world almost every organisation states that it has ‘values.’ But what organisations mean by the word ‘values’ can vary considerably. On the one hand values can be taken as descriptional characteristics. Richard Branson’s Virgin group, for example, lists ‘fun’ as one of its key values. What it means is that ‘fun’ is an essential descriptor of what makes the workplace a Virgin workplace. Essential descriptors or essential characteristics are sometimes referred to as the ‘ethos’ of the organisation. So what Virgin mean is that having fun at work is a core part of their ethos.
A very different approach to values is taken when they are viewed as ‘moral’ terms. On this approach values describe actions which ‘must’ be done by those who hold the values. Some of the most famous examples of values in England are the seven Nolan values, which are the values which must be held and adhered to by those who work in public life. The first two of those values are being ‘open and honest’.
In theory every public organisation and every teacher, doctor and public servant must adhere to these values. Undoubtedly everyone will verbally sign up, but they are often held in an unreflective way so that they become slogans, rather than actions which guide those personally espousing them. We this clearly, for example, in the case of schools which refuse to release their exam results on results day in August. The senior staff are all committed to being ‘open and honest’ but…. When they refuse to honour the principle by actually reporting their results, being ‘open and honest’ has become a slogan, rather than a set of real values.
At Edlumino we have an ethos in our work place, an ethos of peace and positive mindset. We don’t talk about it much as we are not particularly interested in the ethos as an abstract reality on its own. The ethos happens because of our values, so it is the values which we are interested in and which we wish to promote with staff and volunteers.
Our values are very simple and can be found on our website as Policy 3: Vision and Values. Careful readers will see immediately that our values owe a significant debt to the wisdom of Aristotle. We are a non religious organisation so it is important to us to avoid religious formulations of morality. So we take an expression of values which cannot be mistaken for any religious tradition.
Yet our values are not anti-religious. Any historian of religious thought will be able to find Christians such as Thomas Aquinas, Muslims such as Ibn Rushd and Jewish thinkers such as Moses Maimonides who all acknowledge their own debt to Aristotle’s thinking.
We take as values the four key moral attributes which lead to the habits and character traits which enable individuals and organisations to flourish. Almost two and half thousand years ago, Aristotle identified these characteristics as:
· Prudence: the wisdom and skill to make good decisions
· Justice: treating people fairly and appropriately
· Fortitude: having the courage to do what is right
· Temperance: the strength of character to remain focused on our purpose
To some extent these concepts and self explanatory, although we provide further explanation in our Values Statement.
Prudence is the most important of the values as it is about developing a good habit of thinking. All of our decisions and actions should proceed from thinking, so developing good thinking is critically important. Good thinking is about using evidence. It is about trying to be objective and avoiding issues which cause bias and inappropriate or unfair conclusions.
Justice is fairness and treats people how they should be treated. It goes beyond the misplaced kindness of niceness, where ‘niceness’ defines right and wrong, even when the actions in question are not in the best interests of the individuals concerned. To act with justice is to act with an insight about what is appropriate in the overall context of a situation. Sometimes it carries a personal price and its exercise can require considerable courage.
Fortitude is the exercise of courage which enables people to do the right thing, even when it is unpopular. But fortitude goes even further. It means having the courage to challenge others in the organisation and it means not keeping quiet when things are going wrong. We expect our staff and volunteers to ask questions, to query, to probe and absolutely never to turn a blind eye or remain silent in the face of difficulties. To ignore wrong doing is to share some of the responsibility for the wrong doing.
Temperance is essentially about avoiding extremes. For most of us in the modern world it is the crucially important quality which enables us to remain focused and avoid the distractions of competing extremes. For example, having courage is important. But it is as equally important to avoid the excessive courage which constitutes ‘rashness,’ as it is to avoid the absence of courage which constitutes cowardice. Exercising temperance is ultimately how we avoid misunderstanding our values by applying them poorly.
Ultimately having values does not make people morally good. In pursuing values we remain the fragile and fallible individuals that we are. But the values show us ideals. It is in focusing upon those ideals that we become able to recognise how to improve, and thus we become individually and corporately less fragile and fallible as we strive to build an organisation to be proud of.