Off the top of your head, can you name your 5 most important values?

I recently spent the day with a leadership team undergoing a cultural transformation. Their organization had just identified a set of core values tied to the company’s short- and long-term strategy and designed to guide their operations. Now, the team needed to define their own current and desired cultural attributes to ensure alignment from the bottom up.

Watching the conversation and healthy banter unfold was fascinating; particularly interesting were the various ways that individual team member’s and specific team’s personal values impacted their interpretation of values at the organizational level.

For example, one leader valued practicality, thorough analysis, and mastery of his space. He was part of the data analytics team, and he and his direct peers naturally gravitated towards the company’s value of being “leading subject matter experts”. They advocated for this to be clearly reflected in the fabric and culture of the group because using this value to guide their group decisions would most likely result in prioritizing actions that this leader would find most satisfying.

Understanding the Mix of Personal, Team, and Organizational Values

It was clear that this individual, and his less vocal peers, understood the importance of aligning personal values with the values of one’s group and company. For the data analytics team, being SMEs was so ingrained in their approach to work that it would likely be difficult for them if their expertise was not utilized or appreciated.

This highlights the importance of having our personal values line up with those of our work group, as well as our broader organization.  In a leadership role, espoused values (i.e., those we directly communicate) and our “values in action” need to be clearly united, not only for our own satisfaction, but also to ensure we’re communicating consistent shared values to our colleagues.

Despite the strong impact that our personal values have on our orientation, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs, many of us have a hard time pinpointing and articulating them in a way that’s useful.

Start with Identifying Your Personal Values (it’s harder than you think)

One way to identify our core values is to fill out a values inventory. This usually involves reviewing a list of potential values and selecting those that are most essential to our fulfillment. For example, the list might include things like:

  • Achievement (mastering tasks, feeling accomplished, getting ahead)
  • Influence (being able to drive change and make an impact)
  • People contact/relationships (having significant interaction with others)

Let me tell you: this is no easy task. When I first took a values inventory, I wanted to label EVERYTHING as important.

Personal health? Check.

Relationships? Yep.

Mastery of my work? Oh yeah, I value that.

To some extent, I valued all 25 items presented on the list.

However, it’s critical we challenge ourselves to sift through what’s merely important and pinpoint those values that serve as true drivers of our satisfaction.

It’s also important to revisit these values over time as what’s important right now can shift as time passes. For example, if you’re right out of school, you may be focused heavily on achievement and variety, whereas 15 years into your career, that focus shifts to stability and security.

How to Use Values to Make Decisions

As Stephen Covey put it, “don’t prioritize your schedule, schedule your priorities.” In today’s world, it’s easy to let others’ requests guide our time and efforts. If you check your email first thing in the morning, you probably know how quickly others’ priorities begin to overshadow your own.

However, recognizing what’s important from a values-perspective can be incredibly helpful to guide our decision-making and ensure we’re scheduling our personal priorities.

Consider this recent conversation I had with a new mid-level manager. She was about 2 years into her role, and felt strongly that part of her success was her willingness to take on a variety of different projects. Others appreciated her strong work ethic, and she was commended for her drive and motivation. Still, she felt stretched thin, and as she prepared for her second child, she felt that narrowing down her priorities was more important than ever.

But if variety, hard work, and motivation were all critical to her success, how could she decide what to take on when she was offered new projects?

We started with having her complete a values exercise, and take stock of where she was spending most of her time. This helped her see some interesting gaps. For example, flexibility in her work emerged as one of her 5 core values; however, the number of projects she had taken on impacted her ability to take advantage of flexible work arrangements offered by her company. So, to fulfill this value, she would have to re-evaluate how much work she allowed to fill her plate.

Knowing this, we made a set of simple questions she could ask herself whenever a new opportunity or project came her way:

  • Do I have choice in taking this on? We all have requests/work that is simply part of our role and responsibilities, but if the answer was yes, she would ask herself:
    1. Does this align with my core values?
    2. What will this commitment look like long-term? How much time and energy will it take from my other priorities and how will it impact my day-to-day schedule?
    3. Will this serve my group’s goals and vision? Will it help my team achieve stronger results?
    4. Does this align with the strategic direction and values of the organization?

The questions, as you might have noticed, address a theme that’s emerged in our values’ discussion: the importance of alignment across the individual, group, and organization levels.

While our personal values form the basis for many of our decisions, it’s critical to pay attention to the impact at the group and company level as well, or we’re at risk of focusing on things that don’t make an appreciable impact across the board.

Taking the time to understand our personal, team, and organizational values is a worthwhile exercise. And, bonus: many suggest we will be happier and feel more fulfilled when our core values align with our company’s.

A few questions for you to consider:

Are using your core values to guide your decisions?

Does your organization have clearly defined values? And if yes, how is that reflected in the company’s day-to-day operations? How does it manifest?

Do you perceive alignment with your values and those of your team or broader organization?