Skip to content

The danger of using Container Concepts

"Our new company values are all about Transparency, Taking ownership, Reliability, and Open communication." Awesome. Now tell me what that looks like. What does that mean in terms of behavior?  

Coming from the best intentions, these kinds of container concepts hide a lot of complexity that won't help in embedding these values into your company. There are numerous behaviors related to each of these values. On top of that, every single individual will interpret them differently. Conflict could arise because someone is not taking ownership, despite that person feeling they are taking ownership. The solution lies in how they interpret "taking ownership" from a behavioral perspective. Ambiguity in these values will not help you in embedding them.  

Container concepts to simplify complexity 

Organizations commonly use container concepts to simplify complexities around desired outcomes and procedures. These concepts are essentially oversimplifications that provide a convenient shortcut for organizations to communicate goals, results, and what they expect from the workforce (often referred to as values, behaviors, culture, and mindset). Another commonly encountered container concept is collaboration. This container concept is often used to encompass a range of behaviors related to working together effectively. 

Organizations often rely on many more container concepts to communicate their goals and strategies. And the concepts are used by the communicator as a means to transfer a variety of behaviors and actions, which makes sense from a communication perspective. A few concepts are easier to grasp and more appealing to listen to than an explanation of an extensive list of behaviors and expectations around one value at a time. Unfortunately, container concepts remain, in essence, vague statements about values, generalities, and attitudes, and can lead to several pitfalls. Let us explain! 

Dumpster diving into these container concepts 

(See what we did there in the subtitle? 😉) 

Let's return to the values we mentioned at the start of this post: transparency, reliability, ownership, and open communication. These values often serve as guiding principles that shape the organization's culture and behaviors. So, in general, it's a great starting point. Container concepts are not a bad thing. In fact, they can serve as guidance and a starting point to define related desired behaviors.  

We need to be aware that, when we ask people within the organization, "What does this value mean for you in terms of behavior?," we receive a variety of responses with many different interpretations. And the same goes for generalities, which include broader terms like professionalism, leadership, and collaboration. This can become a problem when people have different perspectives on what these container concepts mean and, therefore, what is expected from them.  

Our experiences and observations at multiple organizations have taught us one key lesson: relying too heavily on container concepts can lead to confusion, assumptions, and unpredictable organizational behaviors. The problem arises because these concepts can be interpreted differently by individuals, and what is expected from each person regarding specific actions or behaviors may not always be clear. For example, asking a group of people what actions demonstrate someone "being transparent" may yield various responses. For leaders, this can result in both wanted and unwanted behaviors. So, how do we align again when everyone acts from their perspective and best intentions? 

Start unraveling the complexity of container concepts 

To address these challenges posed by container concepts, we should move away from oversimplification and instead focus on specifying the organization's behavioral expectations and results. Container concepts arise from reasonable attempts to simplify complexities, but they often add to the overall complexity. By clearly articulating and communicating what is expected from individuals regarding actions and behaviors, organizations can avoid confusion and foster a more productive and aligned workforce. 

If you want to know more about specificity and getting rid of your container concepts, be sure to check out "Unravel complexity: The power of specification."


Explore more articles