News // 16 November 2020

What asking about core values teaches us about communicating change

Cameron Raynor, Principal

Over the past few years, RA2 has incorporated questions about core values into the research we do for our clients. These values—developed by social psychologists to measure how different cultural groups see things—help us understand where people are coming from and empathize with their perspectives.

After analyzing these responses across different projects, we’ve learned a few things we think are worth sharing:

  1. People with shared values don’t necessarily support the same political groups and may vote differently than each other. Group identity and partisanship is a strong driver of behaviour that can supersede or even change core values. But this doesn’t mean we don’t have more in common than our partisan differences suggest. People with starkly different values are a small—albeit vocal—minority.
  2. People often agree with goals of sensible change, but are concerned about risks. Most people aren’t as broadminded as the most progressive advocates, but almost everyone espouses selflessness when it comes to friends, family and community members.
  3. Change-makers face skepticism from people who also value local security and stability. This doesn’t mean people don’t want positive change, but their concern about losing what they already have makes them skeptical of change-makers’ motives—especially when these people come from outside of their social circles.
  4. Gaining broad support requires resonating with people who value social stability, security and civility. In Alberta, for example, we often see that between 40 - 60% of people value social stability, security and fitting in above other values. This aligns with seminal research by sociologist Everett Rogers (who came up with the term “early adopter”) about the diffusion of innovations where only a small percentage of the population is open to adopting new, untested innovations.

We see clear implications for people and organizations trying to affect change:

  1. We aren’t as polarized as we think we are. Large majorities of the population share similar hopes, concerns and aspirations.
  2. Communications often focus on the reasons for a change without respecting the concerns of large swathes of the population who value security and stability. Much like how companies advertise warranties alongside features, communicators need to assure people that their ideas won’t make things worse.

We don’t think political polarization is going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating. We are always going to have our differences—democracy requires it—and political partisanship will continue to divide us into competing tribes. That said, we can do a better job of bridging divides, especially when our goals are not partisan. Our shared values are more numerous than our differences and there is plenty of opportunity to find common ground.