My colleague Steve and I were on a work assignment with one of our clients in Dubai last week.  On Friday morning, the Muslim holy day, we visited the stunning Dubai Mall that sits at the base of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.  As well as housing a very impressive Aquarium, the world’s largest crocodile “Big Croc”, and a magnificent array of shops touting the world’s leading brands, the mall also attracts a very diverse cross section of shoppers.

The malls in Dubai are fascinating places where the cultures of the east and west integrate very effectively.  We encountered a group of young Emirati girls dressed in their long black robes (abayas) and head-scarves (hijabs) passing a group of young western girls dresseast vs wested in shorts and t-shirts.

Neither seemed to pay much attention to the other group and yet, due to the style of their dress, it would have been very easy to make assumptions about their values and the differences in what is important to them.

Steve and I reflected on how this exemplified the tension that we often find within organisations that we work with where the external appearance or behaviour of an individual causes assumptions to be made about what that individual values, and what motivates them to act.

This can often create barriers that are difficult to reconcile in helping people to work together.  Good examples are tattoos, body piercings, dramatic hairstyles and highly creative forms of dress.

Likewise the culture of an organisation, those behavioural norms that we observe within our organisations, will reflect the values of the organisation, if the two are appropriately aligned.

We can liken this to a yacht that is anchored in a harbour.  The movement of the yacht is equivalent to our behaviours.  It is influenced by the prevailing winds and tides, just as our behaviours are influenced by other people and events.  The anchor however, is equivalent to our values, in that they do not (or very rarely) move, irrespective of the influences that come to play upon them.  The chain that links the yacht to the anchor is the equivalent of the connection between our behaviours and values.

The danger that we face is that we make assumptions about the values or motives of an individual or an organisation from the behaviours that we observe.  Certainly the two are linked; however, the challenge that while the one is observable (the behaviours), the other is assumptive (values) and making judgement calls about an individuals’ values can be very damaging.  What we can do is to call out the behaviour that we observe and enquire as to the underlying value or motive.

In trying to understand what motivates others it helps if we first seek to understand our own values and behave in accordance with them.  We should also recognise that as we align ourselves to the culture of those organisations that we associate with, so it is also important to seek to align not just our behaviours but also our values.

So much of the tensions that cause problems in organisations are caused by people making assumptions about the values and motives of others.  If only we would look underneath the surface and seek to find what makes us similar before we look at what makes us different, much of these tensions in our workplace could be more easily worked though.

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