When Values Shifts Occur, We Get Big Change

Values often change at a slower rate than most other types of change. We note the early indicators, forecast the changes and then wait while attitudes and behaviors catch up, sometimes a very long time. Then one day there is no denying the direction of the future.

In the corporate world, values have been shifting slowly over the past decade toward social responsibility, corporate responsibility, sustainability, product stewardship, shared value—all essentially interchangeable terms for companies making serious changes in the way they do business to support community and social values. This week CVS announced it would no longer sell tobacco products in its stores, a decision that risks an estimated $2 billion in lost sales. For years the American Pharmacists Association urged pharmacies to end tobacco sales. The CVS decision is a bold move to pursue a future as a full-fledged health-care provider.

This is doing the right thing for the right values on a big scale. Will other retailers follow? Will consumers reward the ones who do and punish those who do not?  Consumers do increasingly vote their values with their wallets, just not with the commitment that change advocates would like.   

Perhaps the most striking values shift in recent years is the increasing willingness to end GBLT discrimination.  Human rights advocates can remind us this shift in public attitudes did not come easily nor are the battles over. Yet we now have laws prohibiting employment and housing discrimination and now the most unlikely states are questioning their prohibitions against same-sex marriage.          

Sometimes you can literally watch the pendulum swing around a value seeking a new social norm. This has been happening with privacy.  First people voluntarily gave up some privacy to gain the perceived benefits of social media. Also Americans didn’t complain too much about aggressive government surveillance in the wake of 9-11 and other terrorism threats. But bring up Edward Snowden in social conversation now and you have the equivalent of a Rorschach test for how people are now wrestling with privacy.  Just ask, should he be charged with treason or exonerated as a whistleblower for exposing government overreach? You will quickly be in a very heated and revealing conversation. 

These are just three value shifts occurring right now:

  1. What values do we expect businesses to have?

  2. What is our understanding of human rights?

  3. What are the changing social norms around individual privacy and their relationship to other important values like trust and security?

What values shifts should be on your watch list? For systems changes to occur, you need major changes in the underlying values for the existing systems. If you want to better anticipate systems change, pay closer attention to values shifts. They are powerful indicators of a very different future ahead.