Common values, Common Cause

I spent a stimulating day at the Common Cause Assembly in London on Friday discussing the case for working with values and what this might mean in practice. Common Cause is an initiative led by the Public Interest Research Centre that grew out of a report published by a coalition of NGOs in 2010 that makes the case for civil society organisations to find common cause in working to strengthen a set of ‘intrinsic’ values that they suggest underpin the work of the sector, regardless of what particular issues individual organisations focus on.

Common Cause draws on a seam of academic research from psychology around human motivations, values and behaviour. This argues that people are motivated by their values, which influence their attitudes which in turn have an impact on their behaviour. Research shows that there are a set of consistently occurring human values throughout human societies which can be distilled into two broad concepts – ‘intrinsic’ values, which are values that are inherently rewarding to pursue (e.g. connection with nature, concern for others, social justice, creativity) and ‘extrinsic’ values, which are centred on external approval or rewards (e.g. wealth, social status, social power and authority).

This matters to civil society organisations pressing for change because people who prioritise intrinsic values are more likely to be politically engaged, concerned about social justice and demonstrate more environmentally friendly behaviours – generally all the ‘’progressive” or “good” things that we want people to do! We all hold all of the values to different degrees and in different ways during our lives, but the research also suggests that values can be strengthened, like muscles. So the more these intrinsic values are appealed to and engaged, the stronger they will get, and the ripple effect on our attitudes and actions will follow.

I spent much of the day in a workshop looking at how we might strengthen these intrinsic values in how we engage with others, and had some thought provoking conversations around what values mean in terms of facilitating and working with groups. How do we demonstrate intrinsic values such as helpfulness, honesty, equality and universalism when facilitating? Is it just about trying to model these values in our behaviour and interaction with the group? Is it being mindful of the values we want to encourage in creating the activities we run? Should we make a conscious effort to find out about the values of the people in the group and seek to meet them there, but nudge them towards intrinsic values if extrinsic values like authority and ambition are displayed? Is it right to attempt to challenge and change people’s values and attitudes? In terms of groups there was also an interesting open space session on the value of deep, immersive learning experiences vs. short workshops or training sessions in developing values driven action. We didn’t get very far in answering any of these questions, but had a great time thinking and debating. I’d be really interested in others reflections and experiences on this.

One other thing I found inspiring on the Common Cause website is a TED Talk by Dave Meslin, ‘The antidote to apathy’, arguing that people don’t fail to act out of apathy, but because there are significant external barriers to getting involved in our communities. If we break down these barriers we can make it much easier for people to act on their intrinsic values.