Motherhood and apple pie – the importance of language in defining values

George Bernard Shaw is reported as saying that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language.

My recent experience suggests that the same applies to Britain and India. When working in India I had to learn what is unacceptable to say in India and what is not understood.

For example, one of the key coaching questions that I teach is “What would be even better than that?” Although logically it makes sense, in practice it does not translate into the Indian context.

I am very keen to receive suggestions for a replacement as I use flash cards with it printed on.

However, I have recently also been experiencing the reverse, whereby I have imported an expression from America that people at home do not understand.

I love the phrase “Motherhood and apple pie” but recently I have been met by blank looks. Indeed, recently I was accused of sexism when I used it in a business meeting.

Motherhood and apple pie is both a description of a sentimental memory of an ideal American home life and two things that nobody can disagree with. It is a powerful metaphor and shorthand – for those who understand it.

It is used as a response to platitudes.

I was very fortunate when I was in the sixth form at school (does that translate internationally?) to follow an excellent general studies course. Part was on philosophy, taught, surprisingly enough, by the woodwork master.

He described an event some years earlier when a major change was under discussion at a parents association meeting, presumably to do with voting of some sort. He said that parent after parent would stand up and make the case for one side or the other and every time justify it by a belief in ‘democracy’.

Democracy is a case of motherhood and apple pie. Everyone is supposed to be in favour of democracy, though no-one actually defines what it is. It is a platitude.

The reason that all this is significant is that both as a coach and as a consultant I am involved in helping organisations define their vision, mission and values. These are meant to be sufficiently meaningful to be used as a direction within the organisation.

There are lots of well known and important values – but what do they contribute? For example, ‘honesty’. Clearly, it is important in any organisation, but does it define the organisation? Ask yourself: “What is the opposite?” Would any organisation want not to be honest?

Think about what matters; is particularly important in this organisation.

For example, as a coach and as a consultant I believe that the highest value should probably be ‘integrity’. I deal with people’s lives, their fears and emotions. I am privy to confidential information.

As a coach I believe that ‘caring’, ‘commitment’ and ‘curiosity’ should be the basis of how I work.

If I were an accountant or a banker, then ‘honesty’ would be a key and relevant value. ‘Creativity’ might not be; but for a designer it would be essential.

When creating a values statement aim to define only three to five key values. Select those that define you.

An interesting feature of values is that you cannot see or touch them. So, when teaching or communicating them, they have to be translated into actions. “If we define ‘innovative’ as a value what implications does it have for our behaviour?” “How does it impact on our approach to risk and blame?”

Brefi Group has a values statement. It does not define any values! It defines what we value, which is an alternative approach.

We value:

  • Learning and development. We role model learning and behave as co-learners when working with clients. We are committed to our own personal and professional development.
  • The practice and maintenance of high ethical and professional standards.
  • The individual’s knowledge of their own business and available resources.
  • The bottom line impact of personal and professional development.
  • The well-being and performance of individuals at work, both separately and as members of teams.

What are the values the are important to and distinguish your organisation?