What’s your take on values?

Question mark surrounded by a rainbow of arrows Serious question: What’s your take on values? How do you identify them and then commit to them? Is there a process you’ve used, or have you simply gone with what feels right?

I’ve wrangled with this for years now, even as I’ve worked with clients to identify their values and help them integrate those values into their work, business, and life.

Values are important, and they’re complex

I’ve abandoned my initial perspective of “hierarchical value trees” (and since I now disagree with this approach, I won’t say who I learned it from, though it’s a well-respected ex-CEO and business-school professor). I’ve gone through a number of values-exploration processes, discarded those dreadfully confusing lists of potential values words, and committed (currently, at least!) to the idea of just three or four value phrases. Why phrases? Because single-word values are almost always nouns, which don’t inspire action. Phrases inspire action. And if we’re to live our values (and if not, what’s the point of identifying them?), then we need to know how – what the actions are.

Some people seem to look at values from the perspective of “where do I most want to spend time.” Which is certainly valid; what we do reveals what we value far more than what we say.

But then, what we do often reveals values that don’t serve us. People-pleasing is an obvious example: as a skill, it’s helpful, but as a value, it quickly becomes exhausting and resentment-inducing. (It’s important to recognize that there’s a difference between values and skills, though they’re sometimes conflated.)

My current thinking …

What if we have three or four truly deep “core values” that reflect the best version of ourselves, the way we strive to live across all aspects of life (work, family, self, community, friends).

We’re most likely to act in alignment with these values when we’re grounded in who we are and, not incidentally, well-rested, healthy, all the good things. For me, those values are: find a better perspective, do something about it, make it fun, and all life deserves care. (Want the single-word version? Curiosity, action, fun, care. See why I like phrases?)

And what if we then also have three or four “lifestyle values” that reflect how we want to actually experience life – the things that we want to spend time doing. I’d call these lifestyle values more personal – perhaps even more selfish, in a good sense.

How does this apply to companies?

Obviously, companies only have one set of values – as my colleague Jeff Toister pointed out when I posted some of these thoughts on LinkedIn, and as I agree. He and I differ only slightly: he believes in one- or two-word values, versus my preference for phrases, but he uses “clear definitions and stories” to explain the expected behaviors.

And as his research has shown (and mine also), when there are more than three to five values, employees don’t remember them, and certainly don’t know how to act in accordance. (My post is here, and his comments are here, and here’s a link to one of his examples of stories – it’s a terrific one.)

In the end…

Whatever you choose to do, whether personally, professionally, or as a leader in your organization, the important thing to remember is that the purpose of values is to guide behavior – yours and your employees’. If the values aren’t clear, if they’re not obviously actionable, and / or if there are too many and thus create confusion, then you’re missing the point.

Values create coherence within teams, organizations, and life. But, like any tool or process, that only happens if you’re intentional and understand how to make it work.

This article is a bit of a sideways step from my usual writing on change and change leadership for technology companies. And values are a key part of how any organization works! Want to learn more? Contact me and we’ll set a time to talk.