The Muselet #2: The Value of Values

Good morning. Coffee in hand? Let’s go.

I got some good response to last week’s email (“Zef’s razor”) regarding my belief in people having good intentions. There are two tracks there that I’d like to briefly follow up on, and as a result postpone my discussion of The Last Dance another week (to give you more time to watch it).

The tracks, paraphrased:

  1. What does “good” in good intentions really mean?

  2. “Easy for you to say!”

Disclaimer: This email is about a far as I’ll allow myself to drift into philosophical topics. I’ll do it this one time, because I’m happy that people were responding to this, and I love the idea of letting you — my audience — drive the conversation. Nevertheless, I have no intention to make this an abstract and philosophical newsletter. Perhaps, to compensate, next week I’ll have to write about something painfully concrete, like “5 surprising uses of for-loops in Go.” 🤔

Track 1: What does “good” mean?

This is something I didn’t really think about, but is kind of fundamental: when you and I don’t agree on what is “good,” it’s hard to assume good intentions. 

This is ultimately a matter of — drumroll — values.

For whatever reason — genetics, heritage, culture, personal history, coin flips — people care about different things. If I have to work with you, and you and I have fundamental differences in values, the answer to what “good intentions” are may be very different. Good intentions towards what goal, exactly?

For instance, I’ve worked with people in the past that consider their job purely a means to financially sustain themselves and their family, their real interests lie elsewhere.

“I got into software development, because it is a sector where there are plenty of jobs and there is money to be earned.”

There is nothing objectively wrong with this. If this is what you value most, this is your prerogative. It is very different from what I value, however. Now, in principle, the idea that “people have good intentions” doesn’t break here, they are just specific to whatever “good” means to that person. Doing whatever you can to keep your job, position, set of tasks and not changing them, are “good intentions” towards your job stability and keep earnin’ the moneys goal. However, they may not be towards mine. So, we still have a problem.

What can we do about this? I suppose this is where “culture fit” and company values come in. If I have a job interview with you, and I realize that you see a job purely as a means to get income, not much else, that’s a solid reason for me to reject you. Why? We’re going to have a tough time creating trust, because our values are so fundamentally different. I have to believe our goals are aligned, otherwise I constantly have to second guess and micro manage everything you do. “Are you saying that because it’s easiest and allows you to go home earlier, or you think it’s best to do for the company?” That’s not a good start to a productive cooperation.

If employees in a company are roughly aligned on their values, Zef’s Razor should hold.

And it goes without saying that the goal of a company is to ensure whatever thing Zef ends naming after himself holds true.

Oh my, if you would have told me five years ago I’d be bringing up the value of values (hah!) with a straight face, I would not have believed you. Company values. Such corporate bullshit, right? Nope, actually a pretty valuable thing.

Track 2: “Easy for you to say!”

Let me just come out and say it. I’m a straight, healthy, white male from a privileged background. I came from a stable, highly educated family. I have never been discriminated against or abused in any significant way.

Not everybody is that “lucky.” And it’s very hard for people “like me” to fully appreciate that fact. In fact, I’m pretty sure that even though I’m fully conscious of not appreciating that fact, I still don’t fully appreciate that fact. If that makes sense. If it does, please explain.

Coming from this privileged background makes it relatively easy for me to assume the best in people. If you’ve ever been a victim of any type of abuse, have been discriminated against or anything along those lines, it’s likely very hard to accept the “people have good intentions” statement. “What was the ‘good intention’ of this person beating me up that time?”

Realizing this makes my comment on the cost of jumping to “debug mode” ever more important:

In cases of conflict between people around me, I effectively never pick sides, even if people expect me to, or feel I should. In such cases I immediately jump into “detective mode” trying to debug the situation: Who said what to whom, what did they mean, where did that come from?

I’ve come to realize that there’s a time and place for this type of detective work, but often empathy for the person in question simply takes precedence, no challenge accepted. If a person comes to you saying somebody beat them up, you don't say “I'm sure they meant well, let's hear their rationale behind beating the crap out of you.”

Let me leave it at that for now. Thanks to all who wrote to me last week, I appreciate it. More please!

Enjoy your Sunday!

PS: If this was too philosophical to you, you may appreciate the excellent talk “The Value of Values” from Rich Hickey (inventor of the Clojure language). Warning: completely different type of values.