In an earlier article, I shared an exercise that I did with my team, an exercise to identify and share our core values. The exercise was inspired by Brené Brown's book Dare to Lead. The goal was to improve our self-awareness and, by sharing our core values with our colleagues, foster understanding and encourage the psychological safety that is an essential element of a high-performing team.
As Brené writes:
"If we don't make our values priorities, we can't ask others to do it for us."
When we explicitly identify our core values, we can look for leadership opportunities that resonate with these values. In expressing our values to our colleagues, our colleagues can support us in our values. The impact on our work is more alignment, less conflict, improved understanding, lasting connection, and greater purpose.
Even if we identify a value as a strong driver, not all of our values are core values. Some values can be aspirational, tied to our aspirations, or the aspirations of others. Other values can be associated with judgement, either from judging ourselves, or in feeling judgement from others. When our values are applied in the wrong context, they can be in conflict with our work. It is also important to ask the question, "Is there a difference between our work values and our personal values?"
When there is misalignment in our values, or when we are driven more by shame, judgement, or aspirations, we may not always be true to our core values. This is an essay about reflecting on our values to understand what drives them—including aspirations, judgements, context, and our work—in order to separate our core values from these other strong drivers.
Most people will identify with a few values that are aspirational. Some of our values just take a very long time to develop. For example, a young person may value wealth, financial stability, or job security, but these are things that can take decades to achieve. Other aspirational values are values that one can never achieve. Excellence and knowledge can fall into this category. Once a person has achieved a certain level of excellence or knowledge, that person may crave a new level of excellence, or even more knowledge, unsatisfied with their current level, even if it is impressive to others. Aspirational values are values that you are always striving towards, no matter what you have accomplished in the past.
From the perspective of someone hoping to eventually have children, values like family or future generations are aspirational, whereas someone who holds a connection to their family or mentoring future generations as a core value—something important to them day in and day out—would not view the same values as aspirational. Giving back is similar. For some people, it might be aspirational—they hope that one day they will have the financial means or independence to give back. For others, it will be a core value: they will need to give back on an ongoing basis, as a means to feel fulfilled.
Some aspirational values are related to ideals that people feel a connection to, but wish they were more dedicated to. Things like health, financial stability, self-discipline, or giving back. They might know what to do to eat healthily and exercise, or spend their money wisely and save for their goals, but they may never truly live up to these values, making decisions that, in hindsight, are not aligned with these values. Because these values are things that people feel like they should be doing, rather than things that they are doing, makes them aspirational, and not core values. When exploring your values, resist holding on to words that resemble something you've been coached to be, or values that never felt true to you.
Most people will associate a few of their values with judgement. This is noteworthy, but not surprising. The specific values that one associates with judgement will vary from person to person, but the emotions they evoke will be similar. For instance, I already mentioned health as an aspirational value, but it can also be a value filled with judgement for someone who is trying to be healthier, but failing. The judgement can be compounded if you are perceived by others as being dedicated to your health, while struggling with the shame of trying to keep various eating habits, exercise routines, self-destructive thoughts, or even substance abuse, your personal secret.
Judgement can be connected with values like achievement, career, legacy, parenting, self-discipline, success, and wealth. For example, feeling like your parents or siblings are judging you because you never finished university and have not been as successful as your older sister, who is a distinguished doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
Self-discipline is a value I identified with. It is also a value to which I attached some judgement. I was raised in a country and a culture heavily influenced by Protestant values, so values like hard work, discipline, frugality, and a stiff-upper-lip are connected with respect, success, and social acceptance. Even the ability to show self-restraint in the expression of emotion can be an important value in these cultures. Learning to control our emotions and keep our true feelings opaque, or even display an emotion that is the opposite of what we are really feeling, becomes part of maturing from a child into an adult.
There were two values on Brené's list that I did not identify with, but I did associate judgement: personal fulfilment and self-respect. I thought, "Who wouldn't be true to these values, especially at work?" I did not identify them in my list of values because I take them as a given. To me, they are fundamental. I realize other people are coming from different experiences and perspectives. People may be focusing on improving their self-respect after struggling with feelings of not being smart enough, successful enough, good enough, or slim enough; or focusing on their personal fulfilment after years of putting other people first. Whether you identify strongly with values like personal fulfilment or self-respect, or consider them a given, one judgement that I think is fair to make: If you are not being true to these values, something is not right, and eventually needs to change.
We will often feel conflicted by values associated with judgement. These values are more about how others perceive us, or how we want to be perceived by others, rather than how we fundamentally perceive ourselves. There can also be some aspirational aspects to these values, like wanting to be healthier, or striving to have more self-discipline. While the values that we associate with judgement are not our core values, they can still be very strong drivers of our behaviours. To develop more understanding, there is a lot of value in identifying them and sharing them with other people whom we feel safe with.
Values in Context
Context matters when considering our expectations of values. For example, Tom Brady is the six-time Super-Bowl-winning quarterback of the New England Patriots. His coach for all of those wins was Bill Belichick. If you heard that Brady or Belichick had the core values success, achievement, being the best, ambition, or confidence, you would not be surprised. But if someone you work with expressed these same core values, it might result in distrust and disconnection, unless you see these values balanced with other values like team work, community, trust, and loyalty. You might be suspicious that the person is driven by ego, title, compensation, and competition, and that they would hang you out to dry in an instant, if it helped them get ahead. As my colleague said to me, "It would be reasonable for Brady and Belichick to have those core values: Their goal is to win the Super Bowl every year. Winning the Super Bowl, annually, is not the goal of most engineering teams."
Changing context, I am willing to bet that Brady and Belichick would say that being the best, success, achievement, legacy, are elusive values that they are constantly striving towards, but not values that they have ever achieved, unconditionally. My guess is that for them, these are aspirational values, rather than core values. If these were core values, they would probably feel more complete, and they would not have been so wildly successful, so consistently, for so long. I imagine their core values are values like ambition, commitment, excellence, leadership, learning, dedication, and perseverance.
When our core values are discordant with our context, it can make us unhappy and unproductive. Reflecting on discordant values can help us identify values or contexts that we want to change or evolve. Which brings me to my final reflection on our values: our work values and our personal values, and what to do when they are not aligned.
Work Values and Personal Values
Brené writes that she is often asked, "Do you want me to identify my professional values or my personal values?" Since I used this as a team-building exercise, I asked my colleagues to identify the values that are most important to them in their work. However, it was immediately clear that everyone's core values went well beyond their work and were values of great importance to everything in their life.
We only have one set of values. They do not change based on context, even if some values are expressed more prominently. This does not mean that we are always living or working in a way that is aligned with these values. Whenever our work is in conflict with our values, we must seek change, either by actively evolving our work or our organizations, or recognizing that the two are incompatible, and moving on to a new opportunity that is more aligned with our values.
Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it's choosing what's right over what's fun, fast, or easy; and it's practicing your values, not just professing them.
When our values and our work are not aligned, it can lead to intense feelings of frustration, anger, disconnection, and even depression. If we are not explicitly aware of our values, we may not even know why we are experiencing these strong feelings. But when we have identified the values that drive us, we can see when our work and our values are misaligned, and take concrete steps to remedy the situation. We can use techniques like Nonviolent Communication to make specific requests to address our needs. This is empowering and can keep destructive emotions and behaviours at bay.
The following questions from Brené's book can help us reflect on the impact of our core values on our work:
- What are behaviours that support your core values at work?
- What is a slippery behaviour that makes you feel like you are living outside your values at work?
When someone shares their values with you, you want to understand the reasoning, motivation, reactions, and guiding principles behind those values. As much as possible, avoid your own interpretations and focus on listening for deeper meaning. As a leader with a deeper understanding and connection—a manager, a mentor, a teammate, a friend—we can then guide and support our colleagues in their values, and they can do the same for us.
Even if you are conflicted in your values at work, as long as you have awareness, you can choose to sit with this conflict, without it becoming destructive. For instance, maybe inclusiveness or diversity is one of your values and you are not satisfied with the spectrum of representation in your organization. If you have tried to improve the situation and you are not seeing any progress, obstructed by a culture that is resisting change, it may be time to move on to resolve this conflict. But even if you are seeing slow but steady progress, you can appreciate the impact of living into your values over the long-term.
The more we are able to connect our feelings to our own needs, the easier it is for others to respond compassionately.
Identifying our core values and sharing them with others is a powerful exercise. Interpreting when a value is aspirational or involves judgement can help differentiate key drivers that do not rise to the level of core values. Appreciating the context in which we are applying our values can help us identify conflicts. Understanding that there is no distinction between our work values and our personal values can help us find work that we are passionate about and identify our opportunities for leadership.
Developing our awareness of our values can help us be true to our values, reducing conflict, providing agency, and making our work more enjoyable and fulfilling. Developing an understanding for the values of our colleagues means we can support each other in our shared or complimentary values, and it provides the foundations for a psychologically-safe and high-performing team.
If you try this exercise, either personally or with your team, please let me know how it goes.
No doubt, team work, community, trust, and loyalty are values that also bring balance for Brady or Belichick within a game, a practice, or a season. ↩︎