Hold to your values when others are missing theirs

Honesty and integrity are central to effective human relationships and their weakness or absence can be fatally destructive. It’s arguably become a trend to devalue such values in public and business life, in favour of self-interest. Thus selfishness and narcissism has become more prominent amongst leaders. Yet examining our personal compass can be a healthy activity, even as it is so palpably missing in our leaders.

Professional values

In training to become counsellors, therapists or coaches, to name three helping professions where ethical guidelines are core to their work, attention is devoted to professional ethics. Thus one learns the importance of such values as confidentiality, respect and valuing the person, commitment to the client, client safety, and so on. Professional associations support such values. Often central to these values is honesty and integrity. Following professional values helps build trust and an effective working relationship upon which good work can be done. If such values are broken, trust is destroyed and usually the relationship will be terminated.

The therapist will often follow the practice of self-evaluation in various forms. They may cultivate self-awareness, the ability so much described in this blog of being able to observe what happens for the practitioner concerned and what isn’t serving them that might need to be modified. They may use an experienced fellow practitioner as a supervisor to help this process and strengthen their work.

The weakness of values in the public sphere

Many might say today that in the public sphere, in politics, government and business, such values are seriously lacking. A spectacular recent couple of cases has been the suspected failure of the Prime Minister’s (PM) senior advisor Dominic Cummings to adhere to the public health rules during the pandemic and then the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been insisting on such adherence, being caught breaching the rules. Hancock was supported by the PM but shortly after resigned, leaving a question mark over the ethics of the PM, one which many believe to be already seriously tainted. The observer is left with the thought that “it’s one rule for you and another for us”.

Such moral inconsistency is deeply destructive of trust, already seriously in question for a number of years. Many people discount politicians’ values as typical of the breed. Yet non-observance of these values undermines government since people cease to comply when voluntary observance is crucial to the success of operations. That way lies either breakdown in policy or coercion.

Such weakness in leaders is not limited to politicians. Already certain professions are distrusted as being “like that”, such as estate agents or financial advisors. However there have been some spectacular failures in senior business management. A few years ago, the Royal Bank of Scotland led by Fred Godwin almost collapsed after the 2008 crash revealed major miscalculations in how the business was run. During the pandemic the retail business of Philip Green collapsed after a long run of dubious business practices. A book published in 2018 called “Reckless Opportunists” describes the rise of a whole generation of business and political leaders for whom a moral compass and sound leadership in the public good was less important than profit and personal gain. Indeed such characteristics seem commensurate with a heady increase in executive pay.

A moral compass

When society is struggling and leaders are failing to lead, it is arguably incumbent for people to look to themselves. In one sense what is happening “out there” is a reflection of a part of ourselves. This is Jung’s concept of the Shadow. In certain branches of psychology, the shadow contains a disowned part of the self. It is experienced outside us but not owned by us. It might leak out and affect our dealings with others, and others might detect a moral inconsistency in such dealings. We can sometimes detect this in things that keep occurring. It’s like the universe is trying to draw our attention to it. Thus the importance of self-enquiry and self-awareness.

We might not like what is occurring in the world right now, but that doesn’t stop us doing our best to clean up our own act, to maintain the integrity of our moral compass, to hold to principles, and to encourage, and campaign where appropriate, for others to do the same. Heaven knows, the world needs it.

Fear of being selfish can limit what’s possible for us

Recently someone told me that she was brought up not to be assertive about what she wanted because that would beĀ selfish. She was taught that “others came first”. In the “me first” society of today that might sound strange and anachronistic. Yet in other cultures, and in parts of Western culture too, it is not uncommon, particularly in older age-groups. Parental and societal rules or injunctions can be introjected by a child and absorbed as their own belief unquestioningly, such that when they are older they hesitate to take a course of action for fear of how they think others might react, or their own sense of guilt at possibly breaking such an injunction to observe what others think is good behaviour. The belief then limits their choices and their ability to advance their own needs effectively and they suffer as a result.

To be selfish is to place one’s own needs well above those of others, or to act in such a way that it negates those other needs. Like many such ethical choices, there are different interpretations of what is selfish. What would be OK with one person might be deemed selfish by another. There may be a collective view of what it means, and then there may be personal ones. The difficulty for someĀ  individuals is that they may limit themselves through an interpretation of selfishness that most others wouldn’t be bothered by. Thus it won’t necessarily serve them.

Unfortunately others can then take advantage of this. It can leave one open to manipulation. Thus if one felt guilty about doing something or was worried about what others might think then those less scrupulous others may then assert their needs at one’s expense. This is often the danger for those who are less assertive or confident, for example.

Letting go of limiting beliefs around being selfish

This is is a good example of where a shift towards personal responsibility and accountability and towards developing self-belief pays dividends. When we identify and shake ourselves loose of limiting beliefs we adopted when very young, we become more able to choose our own beliefs rather than live purely by those of others, and live by values that express who we are. Then we can still act in ways that respect others and their needs but also respect our own too and make choices that can be a win-win, rather than the “they win-I lose” of non-assertiveness. We can be aware of when we feel guilty, recognise where that came from and choose to let it go. Guilt is a messy set of emotions often involving these introjects or out-moded rules and judgements that we took on board and which don’t serve us.

Rather than the word selfishness we can instead hold to the value of respect, where we both value ourselves and others as equally special beings, all God’s creatures and all wonderful. Thus when we approach a decision that affects others a more liberating perspective might be to think of what serves both you and me and all of us, where we all deserve value and respect. Thus we value ourselves and others too.