Understanding our values in real time

By | Coaching and Mentoring, Leadership Toolbox, Personal Development

How often are we asked what our values are?  It is a common leadership and organisational question.  The trouble is, if we are caught on the spot, we are unlikely to identify our values clearly.

Recently I was invited to run a workshop where we planned to look at the personal values of the leadership team and see how closely they matched the organisational values. As always, I did some research and came up with no fewer than 150 words which might be used to describe ‘values’.  Unsurprisingly there is plenty of cross-over in the list, but this highlighted the fact  that we just don’t define our values closely enough.

So why do we need to see this detail?

If we can agree that the best teams and organisations have matching values, then we are likely to see a more cohesive and easily developed culture.  When we have to keep adjusting our values to fit in with an organisation that has a different world-view, we can probably cope for a while, but there will inevitably be friction or stress further down the line – and this isn’t helpful for anyone.

In coaching conversations, my question, ‘What are your top three personal values?’, generally elicits some version of ‘honesty’, ‘fairness’ and ‘respect’.  We need to be much clearer on our own values and there are a number of ways in which this can be achieved.

As a coach, I’ll take a Socratic approach here and challenge the person being questioned with open-ended questions that are going to encourage them to reflect.  We will explore the ideas of their first-stated values with questions that clarify and challenge their statement. We’ll seek the reasons and evidence for their choice and look for other ideas.  It isn’t about being ‘Devil’s Advocate’,  more about looking for alternative perspectives and conditions.

It is important, in this conversation, to bring the values to life, remove them from the esoteric world and put them firmly into day to day situations. For example, what did ‘honesty’ look like at work yesterday?    How did it relate to truth or justice, or maybe to quality or empathy. How was it different from integrity?  How does it link with fairness? Once this starts to be unpicked, we gain glimpses into those other 149 words that describe values and we can use this filter to create a much more refined definition of honesty.

Another way to unpick values is to consider what really upsets you (what makes you shout at the TV, or inwardly growl when you see particular events), or, what makes you shout with joy and excitement.

I had a slightly unnerving experience of this just yesterday and it has really made me stop and think.

Every year, I have planted a few more daffodil bulbs along the hedge near our horse’s paddock. I planted them because I absolutely adore these wonderful bright, yellow, heralds of spring and we are lucky in Wales to have so many that blossom as we head out of grey Winter days.  I also think it’s nice for other people to see them, so it’s a shared thing and that is why they are in the hedgerow visible to anyone passing. If I didn’t want to share the joy, I could put them where other people won’t see them. But I love doing it. It’s a bit of work, a bit of money, but the reward is huge.  Yesterday I arrived to see someone picking some of these daffodils, and my immediate thoughts were dreadful.  How dare you pick these daffodils? How dare you take them when I put something there for everyone to enjoy?  How dare you……. The more reasonable reaction is to want to explain why it’s a bad idea to go around picking flowers, not to accuse someone of doing something terrible.   So what has this to do with values?

I was cross because I had created something that not only can I enjoy, but also other people, and that had been violated.  Clearly, I feel that it is important to share, be generous in heart and practice.  Nature can be beautiful in a sometimes horrible World, so there there is a spiritual tale to be told here too.  I would probably have upset the woman terribly by simply shouting at her, and what does that achieve?  So maybe, just maybe I have another value which shows through here and that is that I like people. I hate upsetting people.  I want to be kind. All these thoughts jumbling in my head and screaming that my values are actually very clear.

So if you’re thinking about values, if somebody comes to you in a leadership workshop and asks, ‘What are your values?’, don’t just say, honesty, integrity and fairness. Give it some thought, think about what might make you cross, what gets you so viscerally moved that you can feel your emotion,  feel your values.

This is how you identify the things that really really matter to you.