It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.
“I’m not sure what I should do here,” Marco told me. “I feel confused. How do I know which choice is the right one?” He was in the middle of a lucrative and complex transaction with his current firm. A new firm had offered him a position, pressing him to make the move right away and bring the transaction with him. He wasn’t sure he could finesse it given he had worked hard to convince this client just months ago that his current firm was the best in the industry.
“What’s driving the sense of confusion? Would this move actually be in the best interest of your client? What values are you investing your energy in?” I asked him in return.
I’ve known Marco for a while and had watched him fight down his own conscience and values many times, making himself miserable. Usually, when a decision was contrary to his values, it showed up as “confusion” about what choice to make. He often found himself in positions that were uncomfortable for him to explain to clients, peers, his spouse and, frequently, himself. With a little reflection, he said sheepishly, “Not really, but it would mean a big payout for me if I could get them to move to the new firm.”
When we first started working together, I walked Marco through an exercise to identify his values. His first draft had things like:
- Money and wealth accumulation
The values he had been living by weren’t bad, but it turns out they weren’t actually his; they were the values of a close family member which he had adopted unconsciously years before.
As we dove in deeper, Marco discovered that his actual values are:
- Ethics, Fairness and Integrity
- Family Time & Balance
- Significant Impact
DO VALUES BELONG IN THE WORKPLACE?
Tina Turner’s song “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” rules many a dysfunctional relationship. Similarly, Marco had been conditioned to leave his values at the door and focus solely on winning. He thought that, in business, he needed to wear a different mask. He told me, “I can’t just let everyone know that I value fairness, kindness and creativity, they’ll walk all over me!”
Fearing they will be judged as weak or naïve if acting on their true values or that they will jeopardize their reputations and impact their success, too many professionals adopt or prioritize values at work which conflict with their personal value systems. Many of these falsely adopted and highly prioritized values include:
- Wealth (money, material possessions)
- Power (dominance, control over others)
- Pleasure (enjoying tangible or ostentatious displays over actual satisfaction)
- Winning (doing better than others, sometimes bordering on crushing others)
According to Stanford psychologist Dale Miller, people dread being seen in the role of chump, and fear that they will be exploited because they anticipate self-interested behavior of others, so they conclude that “pursuing a competitive orientation is the only rational and appropriate thing to do.” It’s a version of the refrain our teens routinely espouse, “But everybody else is doing it!” We hold firm, reminding our teens of our values and the merits of sticking with what we know matters most and doing what counts.
In reality, it turns out that the same advice is best used in our work life, too.
A multi-decade study of tens of thousands of individuals across more than a dozen prosperous and industrialized countries, reveals that the values and guiding principles that matter to most people, regardless of culture, and which they hold as highest priorities are:
- Helpfulness (working for the well-being of others)
- Responsibility (being dependable and trustworthy)
- Social justice (caring for the disadvantaged)
- Compassion (responding to the needs of others)
Millions of us grew up on the great words of Shel Silverstein
“There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
‘I feel this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.’
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you — just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.” – Falling Up
Silencing that voice and acting contrary to their values is what creates the internal dissonance that we call stress and which drives the sense of unhappiness that is rampant in the careers of so many working professionals.
VALUES HOLD THE KEY TO THE YES/NO CONUNDRUM
Do you ever feel stumped about whether Yes or No is the right answer and find yourself flipping wildly back and forth between options? Identifying and understanding your values is a challenging and important exercise that can free you in decision making. Your personal values are a central part of who you are – and how you want to show up in the world.
Values serve as a guide to make the best choice in any situation.
Some of life’s decisions are really about determining what you value most. When many options seem reasonable, it’s helpful and comforting to rely on your values – and use them as a strong guiding force to point you in the right direction. It helps you to simply know when to say Yes and when to say No.
YOUR VALUES PLAY A HUGE PART IN HOW HAPPY YOU ARE
If you are unhappy with parts of your life – if you are suffering from stress, depression or feel generally uneasy in your everyday life, it’s time to look inside and answer honestly the questions “What is important to me?” and “How do I want to live my life?”
Where are you violating your own values?
Steven hit what felt like rock bottom. He’d agreed again to lie to a customer. His partners had changed the terms of the deal and it was up to him to get the firm out of the transaction he’d spent months putting together. He could barely look himself in the mirror most mornings already and he was sick to his stomach wondering what he’d do if the customer confronted him about weaseling out of the deal. That’s how he felt, like a weasel, he told me. He wanted to know how to stop feeling so miserable at work, but he was terrified of getting fired and not being able to support his family.
It wasn’t a surprise to me that two of Steven’s closely held values were Honesty and Integrity. But to Steven it seemed that they were at odds with two other of his values – Security and Financial Freedom.
The problem wasn’t that Steven’s values were at odds, it was that he was in a job working with people whose values didn’t align with his own. His values weren’t what was making him queasy and self-loathing, the conduct his job required was. He needed to be in a company where meeting his values of Security and Financial Freedom didn’t require him to be a lying weasel that made it hard to feel good about himself. That’s where we put our focus in his search for a new position and when he got it, he felt like he’d won the jackpot – a congruent life.
WHAT ARE VALUES?
Your values are the things you believe are important in the way you live and work.
They (should) determine your priorities and, deep down, they’re probably the measures you use to tell if your life is turning out the way you want it to.
When the things you do and the way you behave match your values, life is usually good – you’re satisfied and content. But when these don’t align with your personal values, that’s when things feel … wrong. This can be a real source of unhappiness. That’s why making a conscious effort to identify your values is so important.
HOW VALUES HELP YOU
Life can be much easier when you acknowledge your values – and when you make plans and decisions that honor them.
If you value Family, but you have to work 70 hour work weeks in your job, will you feel internal stress and conflict? What value is actually coming above the value of Family? Likewise, if you don’t value Competition, but you work in a highly competitive sales environment, are you likely to be satisfied with your job? What is the value you have prioritized instead of Contentment?
When you know your own values, you can use them to make decisions about how to live your life, and you can answer questions like these:
What job should I pursue?
Should I accept this promotion?
Should I start my own business?
Should I compromise, or be firm with my position on this issue?
Should I follow tradition, or travel down a new path?
Values are usually fairly stable, yet they don’t have strict limits or boundaries. As you move through your life, your values or the way you prioritize them may change. For example, when you start your career, success – measured by money and status – might be a top priority. But after you have a family, work-life balance may be what you value more.
As your definition of success changes, so do your expressions of your values and priorities. This is why keeping in touch with your values is a lifelong exercise. You should continue to revisit this exercise, especially if you start to feel unbalanced and you can’t quite figure out why. Bear in mind that values that might have been important or held a higher priority may not be relevant now.
DEFINING YOUR VALUES
When you define your personal values, you discover what’s truly important to you. A good way to begin is reflecting on your life – identify when you felt really confident that you were making good choices.
Using examples from both your career and personal life to ensure some balance in your answers:
1. Identify the times when you were the happiest.
2. Identify the times when you were most proud.
3. Identify the times when you were most fulfilled and satisfied.
Use this list of common personal values to help you get started – aim for about 10 top values based on your experiences of happiness, pride and fulfillment.
Prioritize your top values. This step is probably the most difficult, because when making a decision, you’ll have to choose between solutions that may satisfy different values. This is when you must know which value is more important to you.
Write down your top values, in no particular order. Look at the first two values and ask yourself, “If I could satisfy only one of these, which would I choose?”
It might help to visualize a situation in which you would have to make that choice. For example, if you compare the values of Integrity and Stability, imagine that you must decide whether to lie to a customer or tell your partners that you won’t do it and risk getting fired. Keep working through the list, by comparing each value with each other value until your list is in the correct order.
Reaffirm your values. Check your top-priority values and make sure they fit with your actual life and your vision for yourself.
Do these values make you feel good about yourself?
Are you proud of your top three values?
Would you be comfortable and proud to tell your values to people you respect and admire?
Do these values represent things you would support, even if your choice isn’t popular and puts you in the minority?
When you consider your values when making decisions, you can be sure to approach decisions with confidence and clarity.
Ask yourself “How does this fit with my values?” Values demand deeds, not just words.
It’s not hard to make decisions when you get real about what your values are. Here’s to a happy life you can be proud of.